Mysterious battery drain pinpointed to huge hidden video ad scheme

22 Mar 20191.81k Views

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If you’ve ever noticed your phone battery draining without reason, it might be because of a huge hidden video ad scheme now brought to light.

There are a multitude of different reasons that a smartphone’s battery may drain faster than usual, such as being in a hot climate or just having the screen on too bright. However, one aspect you might not consider offhand is that something malicious is happening in front of your very eyes.

That was the discovery made by a company called Protected Media, which, through BuzzFeed News, has uncovered a global advertisement fraud scheme that hides video ads behind standard banner ads. Unbeknownst to the person viewing the app page, their battery will drain faster due to the number of videos trying to load at the same time.

The scheme starts when an innocent app developer sells a banner ad that displays as normal to anyone viewing their app. However, behind the banner, the fraudsters step in to put a series of more lucrative, hidden video ads that are impossible to see to a regular user.

Despite this, the code registers that someone has ‘viewed’ these video ads, which are far more lucrative to the fraudsters than the original banner ad is to the developer, and especially the original advertiser.

This type of fraud, referred to as an in-banner video ad, is not a brand new phenomenon, but Protected Media has found that a newer version has emerged that boosts their number significantly, potentially generating tens of millions of dollars in fraudulent ad revenue.

Masters of disguise

In trying to pinpoint its origin, the firm and independent verifiers have linked some of the fraud scheme to an Israeli video ad technology company based in the US called Aniview. However, Aniview has strongly denied any link to the scheme, claiming the code produced by one of its subsidiaries – OutStream Media – has been exploited by a mysterious third party.

In a statement, Aniview CEO Alon Carmel said that after the scheme was brought to the company’s attention, it immediately began an internal review and notified clients of what the rules are.

Another advertising fraud investigation firm, DoubleVerify, said it identified the same scheme towards the end of last year. Its vice-president of product management, Roy Rosenfeld, said that the fraudsters “did a very good job at hiding and obfuscating what they were doing” and were “quite sophisticated in the thinking behind how they can monetise that inventory”.

Another major discovery made during the Protected Media investigation was that a significant number of the fraudulent ads were purchased using MoPub, Twitter’s mobile ad network. While not indicating that Twitter’s platform was directly engaged in the scam, it does show the platform was exploited for months by scammers.

“At this time, we can confirm that the suspicious activity in question is not being initiated by MoPub,” a spokesperson for the Twitter subsidiary said. “The activity observed by Protected Media stems from an ad that is initiating other non-viewable video ads to run in the background. We are currently investigating what the potential sources of the issue could be.”

Colm Gorey is a journalist with Siliconrepublic.com

editorial@siliconrepublic.com