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Malvertising – Cisco Blog

Online advertising is an integral part of today’s internet experience. In many ways, ads are the lifeblood behind many websites, providing the necessary funding to keep sites running, as well as supporting the creation of new content.

While it may appear as though the ads that are displayed are just a component of the site you’re visiting, this isn’t often the case. Behind the scenes there is a complex network of advertisers, affiliates, and ad exchanges that bring the ads to you. A whole industry has built up around the process of serving up ads, by some estimates exceeding $100 billion in revenue per year. Tracking the sites a user visits and the ads they click on, alongside other metrics, has led to the tailored advertising experience we often see today.

These ads can run the gamut from amusing to annoying. The latter can be a source of frustration for users, with ads popping up while viewing a page, appearing in the middle of an article, or being masked as “sponsored content” that can sometimes be difficult to distinguish from the core content on a page.

In addition, many legitimate websites and content creators heavily rely on ad revenue as an income stream. This can cause even greater confusion for users trying to stay safe online, as legitimate sites may urge users to turn off any ad-blocking software they may have installed. Likewise, content creators and influencers are known to ask users to engage with their ads in order to support their work. Simply put, ad culture is everywhere online.

And those ads can be dangerous. Malicious advertising, or “malvertising” for short, has become a more common occurrence as bad actors have figured out how to infiltrate ad networks in order to serve up malicious content. And while there are steps that you can take, there is no simple, silver bullet to fully protect yourself and your organization from malvertising.

Today’s ad networks

There are a variety of delivery methods for online advertising, though ad exchanges are one of the most common today. This process includes publishers who post the ads to the site, exchanges that facilitate bidding for ad placement, and advertisers who bid to win placement on the site.

At a basic level, you can look at this process as being similar to a car auction. The seller (web user) puts their car (ad space) up at an auction house (publisher). The auctioneer (ad exchange) opens bidding up to the potential buyers (advertisers). The highest bid ultimately wins the car, and the buyer pays the user with money (ad)…

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