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blog: Don Marti

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Traffic sourcing web obfuscator?

15 April 2017

(This is an answer to a question on Twitter. Twitter is the new blog comments (for now) and I'm more likely to see comments there than to have time to set up and moderate comments here.)

Adfraud is an easy way to make mad cash, adtech is happily supporting it, and it all works because the system has enough layers between CMO and fraud hacker that everybody can stay as clean as they need to. Users bear the privacy risks of adfraud, legit publishers pay for it, and adtech makes more money from adfraud than fraud hackers do. Adtech doesn't have to communicate or coordinate with adfraud, just set up a fraud-friendly system and let the actual fraud hackers go to work. Bad for users, people who make legit sites, and civilization in general.

But one piece of good news is that adfraud can change quickly. Adfraud hackers don't have time to get stuck in conventional ways of doing things, because adfraud is so lucrative that the high-skill players don't have to stay in it for very long. The adfraud hackers who were most active last fall have retired to run their resorts or recording studios or wineries or whatever.

So how can privacy tools get a piece of the action?

One random idea is for an obfuscation tool to participate in the market for so-called sourced traffic. Fraud hackers need real-looking traffic and are willing to pay for it. Supplying that traffic is sketchy but legal. Which is perfect, because put one more layer on top of it and it's not even sketchy.

And who needs to know if they're doing a good job at generating real-looking traffic? Obfuscation tool maintainers. Even if you write a great obfuscation tool, you never really know if your tricks for helping users beat surveillance are actually working, or if your tool's traffic is getting quietly identified on the server side.

In proposed new privacy tool model, outsourced QA pays YOU!

Set up a market where a Perfectly Legitimate Site that is looking for sourced traffic can go to buy pageviews, I mean buy Perfectly Legitimate Data on how fast a site loads from various home Internet connections. When the obfuscation tool connects to its server for an update, it gets a list of URLs to visit—a mix of random, popular sites and paying customers.

Set a minimum price for pageviews that's high enough to make it cost-ineffective for DDoS. Don't allow it to be used on random sites, only those that the buyer controls. Make them put a secret in an unlinked-to URL or something. And if an obfuscation tool isn't well enough sandboxed to visit a site that's doing traffic sourcing, it isn't well enough sandboxed to surf the web unsupervised at all.

Now the obfuscation tool maintainer will be able to to tell right away if the tool is really generating realistic traffic, by looking at the market price. The maintainer will even be able to tell whose tracking the tool can beat, by looking at which third-party resources are included on the pages getting paid-for traffic. And the whole thing can be done by stringing together stuff that IAB members are already doing, so they would look foolish to complain about it.