Google’s $6 billion-a-year advertising business is at risk because it can’t be sure that anyone is looking at its ads. The problem is called click fraud, and it comes in two basic flavors.
With network click fraud, you host Google AdSense advertisements on your own website. Google pays you every time someone clicks on its ad on your site. It’s fraud if you sit at the computer and repeatedly click on the ad or — better yet — write a computer program that repeatedly clicks on the ad. That kind of fraud is easy for Google to spot, so the clever network click fraudsters simulate different IP addresses, or install Trojan horses on other people’s computers to generate the fake clicks.
The other kind of click fraud is competitive. You notice your business competitor has bought an ad on Google, paying Google for each click. So you use the above techniques to repeatedly click on his ads, forcing him to spend money — sometimes a lot of money — on nothing. (Here’s a company that will commit click fraud for you.)
Click fraud has become a classic security arms race. Google improves its fraud-detection tools, so the fraudsters get increasingly clever … and the cycle continues. Meanwhile, Google is facing multiple lawsuits from those who claim the company isn’t doing enough. My guess is that everyone is right: It’s in Google’s interest both to solve and to downplay the importance of the problem.
But the overarching problem is both hard to solve and important: How do you tell if there’s an actual person sitting in front of a computer screen? How do you tell that the person is paying attention, hasn’t automated his responses, and isn’t being assisted by friends? Authentication systems are big business, whether based on something you know (passwords), something you have (tokens) or something you are (biometrics). But none of those systems can secure you against someone who walks away and lets another person sit down at the keyboard, or a computer that’s infected with a Trojan.
This problem manifests itself in other areas as well.
For years, online computer game companies have been battling players who use computer programs to assist their play: programs that allow them to shoot perfectly or see information they normally couldn’t see.
Playing is less fun if everyone else is computer-assisted, but unless there’s a cash prize on the line, the stakes are small. Not so with online poker sites, where computer-assisted players — or even computers playing without a real person at all — have the potential to drive all the human players away from the game.
Look around the internet, and you see this problem pop up again and again. The whole point of CAPTCHAs is to ensure that it’s a real person visiting a website, not just a bot on a computer. Standard testing doesn’t work online, because the tester can’t be sure that the test taker doesn’t have his book open, or a friend standing over his shoulder helping him. The solution in both cases is a proctor, of course, but that’s not always practical and obviates the benefits of internet testing.
This problem has even come up in court cases. In one instance, the prosecution demonstrated that the defendant’s computer committed some hacking offense, but the defense argued that it wasn’t the defendant who did it — that someone else was controlling his computer. And in another case, a defendant charged with a child porn offense argued that, while it was true that illegal material was on his computer, his computer was in a common room of his house and he hosted a lot of parties — and it wasn’t him who’d downloaded the porn.
Years ago, talking about security, I complained about the link between computer and chair. The easy part is securing digital information: on the desktop computer, in transit from computer to computer or on massive servers. The hard part is securing information from the computer to the person. Likewise, authenticating a computer is much easier than authenticating a person sitting in front of the computer. And verifying the integrity of data is much easier than verifying the integrity of the person looking at it — in both senses of that word.
And it’s a problem that will get worse as computers get better at imitating people.
Google is testing a new advertising model to deal with click fraud: cost-per-action ads. Advertisers don’t pay unless the customer performs a certain action: buys a product, fills out a survey, whatever. It’s a hard model to make work — Google would become more of a partner in the final sale instead of an indifferent displayer of advertising — but it’s the right security response to click fraud: Change the rules of the game so that click fraud doesn’t matter.
That’s how to solve a security problem.
This essay appeared on Wired.com.
EDITED TO ADD (7/13): Click Monkeys is a hoax site.
EDITED TO ADD (7/25): An evalution of Google’s anti-click-fraud efforts, as part of the Lane Gifts case. I’m not sure if this expert report was done for Google, for Lane Gifts, or for the judge.