Summits Yellow

Princeton develops 'endgame' ad blocking tech that can trick anti-blocker measures

Alex Spencer

US universities Princeton and Stanford claim to have developed ad blocking software that they claim can filter out even those ads which were previously unblockable.

The researchers started work last summer, developing a browser extension that is able to detect native ads on Facebook, something which has tripped up the likes of Adblock Plus. It works by examining the content of posts, rather than just the HTML markup, which can be obfuscated – “the same way a human would,” said researcher Arvind Narayanan.

The latest development, as outlined in a newly-published paper, is able to circumvent the anti-ad blocking measures that have recently been adopted by many publishers.

This uses what the researchers refer to ‘stealth’, using the extension “to convincingly lie to the web page script about the very existence of the ad blocker”. If this fails, they have also identified ways of detecting and blocking the scripts that detect ad blockers.
In a test, its proof-of-concept code reportedly managed to block ads on 50 out of 50 websites using anti-ad blocking scripts.

The researchers believe this could end the looping ‘arms race’ between ad blockers and publishers, that has been steadily escalating over the past few years.

“We don’t claim to have created an undefeatable ad blocker, but we identify an evolving combination of technical and legal factors that will determine the ‘endgame’ of the arms race,” said Narayanan.

For now, the ad blocker is just a proof-of-concept. Researchers purposefully held back from making it fully functional, according to Narayanan, “to avoid taking sides on the ethics of ad blocking”.

However, as publishers have rallied behind anti-ad block measures since blocking has become a major concern in the past couple of years, these developments are likely to have a major impact on the ad blocking landscape going forward.