AdNauseam: Reclaiming User Privacy from Advertising Surveillance

Project: Research

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Over the past decade, advertising has emerged as the predominant source of revenue for web sites and apps [5]. At the same time, it has become a primary means of surveillance of users, with advertisers collecting and storing a wide-range of personal data for use in targeted-marketing. And while the surveillance practices of government agencies like the NSA or GCHQ have received a majority of media attention, the scope of ad-based tracking is arguably more worrying. In addition to the well-documented general harms of bulk surveillance (to creativity, to economics, to ethics [3][39][56][66]), advertising surveillance has been shown to be a significant vector for malware distribution, with malicious software injected via advertising mechanisms, exposing users to significant harms [72][58]. Further, ad tracking can significantly degrade the performance of web-browsers, as costly third party resources are loaded without users’ knowledge or consent. Efforts to regulate such practices have largely failed thus far, with the ill-fated Do No Track initiative [64] representing only the most public of such failures.If the status quo concerning ad surveillance continues, two trends are likely to continue. First, as ad surveillance increases, the combination of threats to privacy, harms from malware, and a degraded user-experience may drive average, less technical users to limit their online exposure. The second trend is the increasing adoption of ad-blocking software, which may threaten the economic model for content on the web. Adblocker use has already increased in recent years [52], and Apple has recently incorporated ad-blocking support into iOS, its mobile operating system [15]. Similarly, Mozilla appears ready to implement Tracking Protection as an optional feature in Firefox [63][41]. These trends in combination will have a disproportionate effect on less technical users and those with slower connections, while smaller content providers will be threatened and/or forced to adopt subscription-based models, again shutting out marginalized users. In either case, we see a different web going forward, one dominated by large corporate players, where surveillance and malware are rampant, and independently produced content increasingly sparse.To rectify this situation, two things are required: first, users need tools with which to better understand the complex advertising ecosystem. At present, the average user operates in the dark, either exposed to a bewildering variety of visible ads and hidden trackers, or, having installed an adblocker, seeing nothing. Neither path imparts any understanding to the user concerning the scope and variety of advertisements to which they are exposed. Second, as such harms become apparent, users need a means with which to actively express their dissatisfaction. While several tools have attempted to address aspects of this problem, none thus far provide awareness in combination with proactive critique, as we have done in the AdNauseam prototype [36] that we propose to develop via this grant.The AdNauseam prototype realizes the properties of awareness and critique in the context of advertising surveillance as follows. While working together with an adblocker to block ads and trackers, the software captures each ad in the background, allowing users to explore interactive visualizations of their ads (see fig. 1 below) in a type of inverse surveillance, or sousveillance [47]. AdNauseam also provides an outlet for users to express their dissatisfaction with the system in a way that advertising networks are likely to understand, via the language of economics. Specifically, the software allows users to enable simulated clicking of each captured ad in the background. As each ad is now clicked by the browser, the user's data profile is polluted, and mistrust is created between advertisers and the networks they pay for clicks.This proposal details how we plan to develop the simple AdNauseam prototype into a production-quality application, and the research questions we intend to answer along the way. Results of this work will be published as free, open-source software with accompanying documentation, presented at international conferences such as Transmediale and ISEA, and published in top-tier journals like New Media & Society and Leonardo.


Project number9042447
Grant typeGRF
Effective start/end date1/01/1724/06/21

    Research areas

  • Advertising , Surveillance , Privacy , Visualisation , Obfuscation