Use Ad Blockers to Thwart Govt. Spyware

Use Ad Blockers to Thwart Govt. Spyware

Reports of the union government keeping some journalists under surveillance stirred a hornet’s nest in India last year and Israeli tech company Pegasus faced flak from Indian lawmakers for supplying the spyware. Now, another Israeli news outlet claims that using ad blockers could be the safest and easiest way to block users from such prying eyes. 

According to a report published by  Haaretz, spyware creators are “weaponizing” online ads that enable surveillance. So, if the government wants to track your online activity, they can do so through specific banner ads that pop-up on your browser window or even on your smartphone via similar sources. 

Companies specializing in spyware now have the ability to locate and inflect specific targets that then become the prying eyes capable of tracking one’s online activity and beyond.  One such company, Intellexa, was hit by US sanctions last month after it was found that they played an active role in snooping on American citizens. 

Spyware that infects ads and then your smartphone

The company reportedly created an ad-based spyware infection system that could access the full contents of a user’s smartphone in real time. The US Treasury department had spoken of the proliferation of commercial spyware and surveillance technologies while calling out Intellexa’s spyware Predator that was used to pry on US officials. 

The Haaretz report cites documents to suggest that Intellexa came up with a proof-of-concept in 2022 that they called “Aladdin” which enabled putting spyware via online ads. It said, the documents provided a gist of how the spyware injects malware into such ads as well as a demo of the operations. 

The publication says that the system targets graphic designers and activists with job offers and is used as a conduit to introduce the spyware into their device. Of course, there is no confirmation whether Aladdin was fully operational and whether it was actually sold to government customers. 

Targeted surveillance using banner ads

Another Israeli company called Insanet came up with its version of an ad-based infection system that could locate an individual within a network and then plant the spyware using the same operation. Since online ads are crucial to website revenues, the idea of smuggling spyware around such ads into a target’s handheld device or laptop became easier. 

In the past, cyber criminals have delivered malware via such ads though its success solely depends on the interaction of these ads with the victims that includes clicking on the link or opening a malicious file. However, the reliance of online advertising for web revenues has put an effective weapon in the hands of governments seeking to target its critics.  

Ad blockers are more essential than ever before

Which is where the power of ad blockers, which normally we ignore, can become a handy and easy weapon to counter such threats. The way it works, these blockers stop ads from opening on the browser, which is where it actually starts transacting with users and then infects their device or devices. 

Since these ad blockers not only hide the ads being served, they also block the underlying website from loading them, it makes sense using them, especially if you are under duress over surveillance. In fact, privacy experts say that ad blockers should be compulsory for young browsers as it means ad exchanges cannot use tracking code to see which websites one visits when they’re browsing. 

Security experts have for long suggested using ad-blockers for smartphones and browsers though in some cases websites would require users to unblock them in order to show essential pop-ups that are required to fill in user details. In fact, the FBI in the US had mentioned ad blockers as essential online safety precaution two years ago. 

Of course, this could create some concerns for ad exchanges as once more people block ads, the entire digital marketing and sales initiative would require an overhaul. Maybe, it is high time that this happened, given that most big tech companies have earned a fortune many times over with this revenue model that blatantly violates digital privacy. 

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