Ad-blocking is good from both a security and privacy standpoint

Every now and I then, I come across a story which reaffirms my long-held belief that ad-blocking is good from both a security and privacy standpoint. That happened again recently when I saw this article in The Register:

Online advertising has become an increasingly potent threat to end-user security on the internet. More hackers than ever are targeting the internet’s money engine, using it as a powerful attack vector to hide exploits and compromise huge numbers of victims.

Malvertising, as poisoned ads are known, is as deadly as it is diverse. Hackers are able to poison advertisements with the world’s most capable exploit kits, then pay to have it served on a large number of prominent websites. Up to half of users exposed to the very worst forms of malvertising fall victim, yet tracking the attacks is often tricky. Advertisements are dynamic and served only to certain users, on certain websites, in certain conditions, making attacks difficult to study.

As the article goes on to explain, malvertising has simply exploded in recent years, and is now an extremely serious problem. But unfortunately, big players in the web advertising business aren’t doing enough to combat it:

The industry’s top malvertising experts are unanimous: For all intents and purposes, advertising companies have no idea who is buying their ads, and they make what amounts to no attempt to understand their customers. In an industry that moves fast and operates on tight margins, whitelisting and security checks seem costly and unwanted speed bumps.

The two biggest online advertising organisations, Google and Yahoo!, did not respond to a request by Vulture South for comment after initially flagging interest in interviews.

What can users do to protect themselves from malvertising? The answer is simple: Block ads and block JavaScript from executing by default.

There are ad-blockers available for all major browsers, notably AdBlock Plus, which has extensions for Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari, and Chrome/Chromium. All the major browsers also contain controls that are capable of turning off JavaScript execution, but since most of us want sites to trust to be able to run scripts (for example, I want to allow JavaScript to execute my own domain and my credit union’s domain), it’s better to install a tool like NoScript, which allows JavaScript to be selectively turned on for trusted sites. (NoScript has 2 million users and maintains an average review of five stars. It’s well-deserved).

Using these and other tools (like HTTPS Everywhere, RequestPolicy, Better Privacy, and Cookie Controller) can greatly improve our security and privacy as users. The tools I’ve mentioned essentially act as browser armor, and can safeguard against all sorts of threats on the Web, not just malvertising. We all stumble into bad neighborhoods on the Internet from time to time, often by accident. Having browser armor in place greatly minimizes the risk of harm to our computers. Prevention, as they say, is the best cure of all.

I’ve heard some people make the argument that ad-blocking is unethical. I disagree. I believe that as users, we all have the right to decide what content we want to come into our homes and workplaces through our personal computers, tablets, and smartphones. That means having the freedom to block JavaScript, cookies, cross-site requests, ads, images, or anything else. We all ought to be able to control our own computing and decide how the Internet connectivity we pay for gets used.

This is especially important in the context of mobile Internet access, because most of us are on plans with fixed data allotments.

I understand the economics of publishing and content creation, and I agree we need to support artists and writers. The best way to do that, though, is to purchase a subscription to a favorite publication, or put money in a site’s tip jar.