Chasing the Revenue Dragon

While chasing the smoky revenue dragon, publishers miss a different monster: Data Leakage.dragon-fotolia_34730412_s

In October The Guardian’s Chief Revenue Officer revealed[1] that numerous ad tech providers in the ad supply chain were extracting up to 70% of advertisers’ money without quantifying the value to the brand. Yes, this revenue loss situation is eye opening, but it’s not the only activity affecting your bottom line. Protecting your data assets is critical for maintaining and maximizing revenue. Inability to control digital audience data within the supply chain is a catalyst for revenue loss. The looming General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) regulations, that take effect in May 2018, makes the case for data protection that much stronger.

Data: a Publisher’s lifeblood

Every digital publisher intrinsically knows that one of their most valuable assets is their audience data – it drives a publisher’s stickiness with lucrative advertisers, their inventory value, and ultimately their brand image.

Data leakage is the unauthorised transfer of information from one entity to another. In the digital ad ecosystem, data loss traditionally occurred when a brand or marketing agency collected publishers’ audience data and reused it without authorisation. Today, this scenario is much more convoluted due to the volume of players in the digital advertising landscape, causing data loss to steadily permeate the entire digital ad industry.

Publishers lose when they can’t control their valuable consumer data:

1. Depleted market share: With your audience data in their hands, advertisers and ad tech providers can always go to other publications and target the exact audiences, thereby devaluing your brand.

2. Reduced ad pricing:  When advertisers or ad tech providers can purchase your audience at a fraction of the cost it decreases the demand for your ads, thus devaluing your ad prices.

3. Exposure to regulatory penalties & risk mitigation: Collection and use of consumer data is a publisher’s prerogative, but protection of this data is a weighty responsibility. Inability to safeguard data gathered from your website leaves a publisher vulnerable to running afoul of government regulations. Saying the penalties under GDPR are severe is an understatement. The repercussion of noncompliance is losing up to 4% of your total global turnover or €20 million, whichever is greater.

4. Reputation loss: Ultimately, data loss and any news of noncompliance could negatively affect consumer trust and brand reputation.

The hands behind data loss

On average, The Media Trust detects at least 10 parties contributing to the execution or delivery of a single digital ad, and this is a conservative figure considering that frequently this number is as high as 30, and at times more than 100, depending on the size of the campaign, type of ad, and so forth. The contributing parties are typically DSPs, SSPs, Ad Exchanges, Trading Desks, DMPs, CDNs and other middlemen who actively participate in the delivery of the ad as it traverses from advertiser to publisher. Any upstream player, including the advertiser or original buyer, has access to a publisher’s proprietary audience data if not monitored for compliance.

The advertising ecosystem isn’t the only offender. The bulk of third-party vendor code that executes on the publisher’s website goes unmonitored, exposing the publisher to excessive and unauthorised data collection. In these cases, a publisher’s own website acts as a sieve leaking audience data into the digital ecosystem.

Ending the chase

Resolving revenue lost from data leakage isn’t an unsolvable conundrum, but one that can be addressed by applying the following:

  1. Data Collection: Get smart about the tools used for assuring clean ads and content. Your solution provider for ad quality should check for ad security, quality, performance and help with data protection. Reducing excessive data collection is the first step in addressing data leakage.
  1. Data Access: With GDPR, EU-US Privacy Shield, and many more such timely regulations and programs, the onus is on the publisher to understand what data activity their upstream partners engage in via advertising. Instead of today’s rampant mistrust, the supply chain must move to accountability for non-compliant behavior.
  1. Governance: Publishers absolutely need to start adopting and enforcing stricter terms and conditions around data collection and data use.

Ultimately, every publisher needs to monitor and govern third-party partners on their website to close loopholes that facilitate data leakage before pointing fingers at others.

The Great Data Leakage Whodunit

Safeguarding valuable, first-party data isn’t as easy as you think

If your job is even remotely connected to the digital advertising ecosystem, you are probably aware that data leakage has plagued publishers for many years. But you are most likely still in the dark about the scope and gravity of this issue. Simply put, data leakage is the unauthorized transfer of information from one entity to another. In the digital ad ecosystem, this data loss traditionally occurred when a brand or marketing agency collected publishers’ audience data and reused it without authorization. Today, this scenario is much more complicated due to the sheer number of players across the digital advertising landscape, which causes data loss to steadily permeate the entire digital ad industry, and leading to a “whodunit” pandemonium.

Surveying the Scene

On average, at The Media Trust we detect at least 10 parties contributing to the execution or delivery of a single digital ad, and this is a conservative figure considering that frequently this number is as high as 30, and in some cases more than 100, depending on the size of the campaign, type of ad, and so forth. The other contributing parties are typically DSPs, SSPs, Ad Exchanges, Trading Desks, CDNs and other middlemen that actively participate in the delivery of the ad as it moves from advertiser to publisher. Just imagine the cacophony of “not me!” that breaks out when unauthorized data collection is detected. To make matters worse: few understand how data leakage impacts their business and ultimately, the consumer. As a result, an unwieldy game of whodunit is afoot.

Sniffing out the culprit(s)

To unravel this data leakage mystery, let’s get down to brass tacks and build a basic story around just four actors: Bill the Luxury Traveler (Consumer), Brooke the Brand Marketer (Brand), Blair the Audience Researcher (Agency), and Ben the Ad Operations Director (Publisher).

data-leakage-who-dunnit

Bill the Luxury Traveler

Case File: As a typical consumer, Bill researched vacation package for his favorite Aspen resort on a popular travel website. He found a great bargain but wasn’t ready to make the final booking. As he spent the next few days thinking about his decision, he noticed ads for completely different resorts on almost every website he visited. How did “they” know he wants to travel?

Prime Suspects: Bill blames his favorite resort and the leading travel website for not protecting or, even worse, selling his personal data.

Brooke the Brand Marketer

Case File: Brooke is the marketer for a popular Aspen luxury resort. She invested a sizeable percentage of her marketing budget on an agency that specialized in audience research and paid a premium to advertise on a website frequented by consumers like Bill. To her dismay, she realized that this exact target audience is being served ads for competitive resorts on several other websites. How did her competitors know to target the same audience?

Prime Suspects: Brooke questions her ad agency leaking her valuable audience information to the ad ecosystem and also fears the leading travel website does not adequately safeguard audience data. What Brooke does not suspect is her own brand website, which could by itself be a sieve that filters audience data into the hands of competitors and bad actors alike.

Blair the Audience Researcher

Case File: With a decade of experience serving hospitality clients, Blair’s agency specializes in market research to understand the target audience and recommend digital placements for advertising campaigns. However, one of Blair’s prestigious clients questioned her about the potential use of the brand’s proprietary audience data by competitors. How does she prove the client-specific value of her research and justify the premium spend?

Prime Suspects: Blair is concerned about the backlash from her clients and the impact on the agency’s reputation. She now has to discuss the issue with her trading desk partner to understand what happened, but she is unaware that she is about to go down a rabbit hole that could lead right back to her client or the client’s brand website as the main culprit.

Ben the Director of Ad Operations:

Case File: Ben is the Director of Ad Operations for a premium travel website. As a digital publisher, the sanctity of his visitor/audience data directly translates to revenue. In this scenario, he suffered when his valuable audience data floated around the digital ecosystem without proper compensation Almost every upstream partner had access to his audience data and could collect it without permission. When his data leaked it devalued ad pricing, reduced market share and customer trust, and also raised data privacy concerns. How does he detect data leakage and catch the offending party?

Prime Suspects: Everyone. Publishers like Ben are tired of this whodunit scenario and the resulting finger-pointing. While ad exchanges and networks receive a bulk of the blame for data collection, he is aware that many agencies, brand marketers and their brand websites play a role in this caper, too.

And at the end of the day, consumers, people like Bill whose personal data is stolen, are ultimate the victims of this mysterious game.

Guilty until proven innocent

While the whole data leakage mystery is complex, it can be cracked. The first step is accepting that the entire display industry is riddled with mistrust and every participant is guilty until proven innocent. Several publishers, responsible DSPs, trading desks, exchanges, marketing agencies and brands have already taken it upon themselves to solve this endless whodunit. To bolster their innocence, these participants need to carefully review:

  1. Data Collection: Get smart about the tools used for assuring clean ads and content. Your solution provider should check for ad security, quality, performance and help with data protection. Reducing excessive data collection is the first step in addressing data leakage.
  1. Data Access: With the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), EU-US Privacy Shield, and many more such timely regulations, the onus is on every player in the digital ad ecosystem to understand what data their upstream and downstream partners can access and collect via ads. Instead of today’s blame game, the industry should slowly see accountability for non-compliant behavior.
  1. Governance: Every entity across the ad ecosystem should adopt and enforce stricter terms and conditions around data collection and data use. This is especially crucial for publishers and brands – the two endpoints of the digital ad landscape.

Ultimately, every participant in the digital advertising ecosystem first needs to monitor and govern their own website in an attempt to close loopholes that facilitate data leakage before pointing fingers at others.

Leaving the light on…and exposing visitors to malware

Hotel websites are vulnerable to malware and data leakage

Hotel website security

The hotel industry is poised for continued growth in 2015, coming off a stellar 2014 which saw occupancy rise to levels not seen in more than 20 years. With the World Tourism Organization projecting more than 1.4 billion international journeys in the year 2020, you can bet that hotel websites will play a central role in fulfilling these travel needs.

What are hotels doing to secure a share of this volume? Many incorporate video, add feedback collection and recommendation features, leverage blogs, or enhance the content management system. These various services provide for a more interactive and engaging website, as well as enable the site to be optimized. But, did you know that they also represent an entry point for malware and data leakage that can expose a customer’s personally identifiable information?

Yes, hotel ecommerce sites are rife with third-party vendors. As outlined in our recent blog post, brand and ecommerce site managers are not doing enough to protect the online and mobile environment FOR their customers. And hotel websites are no different. In fact, current industry rumors point to a manipulation of an account-checking tool used by a major hotel chain. The compromised tool, in concert with stolen passwords, allowed fraudsters to open new accounts and transfer rewards points which were then exchanged for gift cards. So that got The Media Trust thinking about other website vulnerabilities faced by hotels.

In early December, The Media Trust analyzed the 34 top hotel websites, as listed in STORES magazine’s annual “2013 Top 250 Global Hotels” report published in January 2014. Analysis involved the scanning of all public-facing website pages and the capture of all third-party vendors, domains and cookies present on each hotel’s site.

Over a seven-day period, The Media Trust’s Media Scanner scanned each hotel’s website homepage and major sections 250 times a day—a total 1,750 scans across each site. Each scan executed the web page as if being viewed by a typical consumer, and collected and analyzed all third-party code, content and text for security, latency and data leakage issues. Leveraging our presence in more than 500 global locations, The Media Trust replicated a true user experience as if a real consumer visited the website, and therefore did not have the ability to collect actual visitor data.

The results were interesting. The average site utilized 47 different domains, 31 vendors and 65 cookies; however, some outlier hotel sites used as many as 134 domains and 148 cookies.

                                      Average       High

            Domains:             47              134
Vendors:              31                57
Cookies:              65              148

What does this mean? That’s a good question. In theory, low numbers are preferred from a manageability perspective as each domain, vendor or cookie represents an access point to or action on a site—the fewer utilized in site operation, the fewer to manage. However, the reality is that a sizeable number of third-party vendors, domains and cookies are found on most sites as they provide the interactive and engaging functionality executing on browsers.

This functionality comes at a cost. Each third-party vendor represents an access point that could be compromised and serve malware; or, redirect visitors to another, possibly malicious, website or app; or, secretly collect website visitor (first-party) data. In addition, each third party can call dozens of fourth or fifth parties which exponentially increases the risk to site visitors.

Browser cookies provide essential site functions, including the ability to navigate without repeating data entry such as destination, travel dates and room requirements. However, the process of dropping the cookie can easily be compromised by an unauthorized party piggybacking on the cookie. In addition, some third-party vendors drop cookies to collect website visitor/first-party data without website owner/operator knowledge. Known as “data leakage”, these cookies track valuable user behavior—data about guests, their interests and travel periods—which can be resold into the online ecosystem for customer targeting by competitors or industry partners. If that data includes personally identifiable information (PII) the website owner/operator could be subject to data privacy violations. With state attorneys general and the federal government cracking down on PII, hotels must be mindful of public-facing website properties and what is executing on visitor browsers.

Hotel websites are vulnerable to data leakage and malware, and this vulnerability opens the door to litigation and significant brand damage. For these reasons website owner/operators need to thoroughly identify, approve and monitor third-party vendors and their activities at all times.

The big question is: How are the major hotel chains managing their public-facing websites to protect their customers?

What’s on your website? And what’s it doing there?

Recognizing the risks of third-party code on brand and ecommerce websites.

That’s a simple question, right? You’d think that IT, infosec and ecommerce/digital operations would know—that they would want to know—which third-party domains execute code on their company’s website. The reality is they don’t know, exposing their site and their site’s visitors to the constant threat of cyber attacks in the form of malware drops or domain redirects.

Today, most organizations recognize that online and mobile ads serve as major conduits for malware, but they remain ignorant to the risks associated with third-party code executed on their website. They fail to understand the value of knowing how many third-party vendors and domains access their site each day, week or month. Failure to track third-party code activity or the length of time the domain remains on a site opens the door to malware, site performance issues and data leakage, which can lead to lost revenue and privacy violations.

And don’t forget that many of these vendors may require a fourth-party to enable their functionality, which means the average website can have hundreds of domains accessing the site at any one time. In fact, the preponderance of source code executing on Fortune 1,000 websites is third-party code—just think of the latency challenges!

That figure sounds high until you take into account the third-party services required to render a single URL: blogging, video, data analytics, comments, chat, product reviews, marketing automation, etc. These various services provide for a more interactive and engaging website, as well as enable the site to be optimally monetized.

While third-party vendors provide value, they must also be closely monitored, lest they unknowingly serve as an entry point for malware, as evidenced with the Syrian Electronic Army’s (SEA) Thanksgiving Day attack on more than 100 media sites. The SEA attacked these various websites by first infiltrating an unsuspecting third-party used by media outlets, and a few name-brand companies, whose ecommerce sites were unavailable for hours resulting in millions of lost revenue. In the grand scheme of things, this recent compromise was relatively harmless—the SEA redirected the Gigya domain to a promotional message—and did not penetrate internal systems, infiltrate firewalls or pilfer sensitive corporate or customer data. Yet.

While third-party vendors provide value, they must also be closely monitored, lest they unknowingly serve as an entry point for malware, as evidenced with the Syrian Electronic Army’s (SEA) Thanksgiving Day attack on more than 100 media sites. The SEA attacked these various websites by first infiltrating an unsuspecting third-party used by media outlets, and a few name-brand companies, whose ecommerce sites were unavailable for hours resulting in millions of lost revenue. In the grand scheme of things, this recent compromise was relatively harmless—the SEA redirected the Gigya domain to a promotional message—and did not penetrate internal systems, infiltrate firewalls or pilfer sensitive corporate or customer data. Yet.

Purveyors of malware attack for two primary reasons: simple profit or publicity, with the Sony Pictures Entertainment breach being the most recent high-profile example. Due to the heavy reliance on marketing analytics, plug-ins and third-party content, brand and ecommerce sites are prime targets for a large-scale attack orchestrated through an unknowing accomplice: a third-party executing code on an ecommerce site. And it won’t be for harmless fun. These cyber criminals leverage corporate websites to drop malware on site visitors, which typically includes employees, that mines for system vulnerabilities, syphon valuable customer data or redirect consumers to alternative and possibly competitive sites.

When this happens, what will you do? Instinct is to shut down the entire property until you can locate the malicious code—a process that can take hours of searching. This is an expensive solution, because not only do you spend resources pinpointing the problem but you also won’t be able to deliver promised ads or process customer transactions, and your brand will be forever tarnished.

The best defense is continuous monitoring of third-party vendors to catch the moment they are compromised and before significant harm is unleashed. Through constant scanning of these website partners you will know the instant an anomalous activity is detected, whether it be suspicious code or a domain redirect.

Think about it the next time you visit your company’s website to read product reviews, catch up on the latest blog post, chat with the help desk or watch an entertaining video. Do you really know which vendors enable these activities? Have you authorized their presence and activity? Once you have a handle on this information, securing your business’s online presence becomes easier.

 

Ecommerce: Are you ready for the 2014 holidays?

It’s the most wonderful time of the year…for ecommerce.

For many, the cooler temperatures and shorter days signal the start of holiday shopping, and the 2014 holiday season is expected to witness a 15.5% increase in ecommerce sales. Mobile transactions will constitute a third of that number generated, with the average consumer spending $248 online. For others, the increased volume of online shopping serves as a tempting target for web-based attacks in the form of malware, and consumers are the innocent participants.

Malware attacks skyrocket during the holiday season. This makes sense when you consider that more than 25% of total U.S. annual online sales are expected to occur in November and December.With more than $6.5 billion in ecommerce sales expected this year, you can bet the online ecosystem will be targeted.

Much like retailers stock the shelves, ecommerce sites load up with images, product descriptions and advertisements promoting this season’s must-have items and offering discounts in preparation to cash in on the uptick in website visitors. However, this super-sized volume also attracts those looking to make a quick buck by taking advantage of your customers and their online shopping activities. They hijack your ads or third-party content to deliver nefarious code that auto installs on your site visitor’s device. Often, due to fraudsters’ ever-increasing sophistication, these ads or images don’t even require user action. The process of simply serving the impression of an infected ad, image or product review can set the malware wheels in motion.

The Media Trust has had a front-row seat to these activities for the past few years, witnessing the doubling and sometimes tripling of attacks via web-based advertisements or “malvertising” from November through January. The attacks typically kick into high gear on the Wednesday before the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday, a time when many employees charged with supporting and maintaining your website are at home enjoying the long weekend. The staff required to keep the website operational focus only on functionality and often don’t notice the anomalous, third-party code piggybacked to their ads and third-party content.

What’s the worst that can happen? Your website and/or ads become a flashpoint for a major attack, infecting thousands of your customers or potential customers with harmful malware. Typically, the malware downloads an exploit kit onto a customer’s device and mines for system weaknesses to leverage, like passwords or access to personal bank accounts. Sometimes, the hijacked content redirects valuable customers to a fraudulent site, resulting in lost revenue. In either scenario, your customers experience a negative interaction with your brand.

The reality is that your public-facing ecommerce site, quite possibly the bread and butter of your business, can serve as a prime purveyor of malware to your customers. The only way to prevent such attacks is to monitor all ad tags and website code executing on the browser or app, including your own code and that of third parties, data management platforms, advertising re-targeters, analytic firms and sales platforms. Continuous, 24/7 monitoring ensures the detection and analysis of all unknown or anomalous ads and third-party code served to the site, and real-time detection enables ecommerce operators to quickly remove and then block the suspicious or malicious ad tag or code before any damage to site visitors or brand occurs.

Brand protection, revenue security and site performance–those are the best holiday gifts to give and receive.