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Senate slams ad servers for security failings

Committee plans hearing on malware dangers

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The US Senate has issued a report calling for the online advertising industry to improve its security against malware attacks, and for lawmakers to legislate tougher penalties should it fail to do so.

The Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs said that the advertising landscape as it now exists "makes it impossible" for users to be protected against malware attacks while visiting sites.

"The online advertising industry has grown in complexity to such an extent that each party can conceivably claim it is not responsible when malware is delivered to a user's computer through an advertisement," the committee said in its report.

"An ordinary online advertisement typically goes through five or six intermediaries before being delivered to a user's browser, and the ad networks themselves rarely deliver the actual advertisement from their own servers."

The report (PDF), which is the result of a subcommittee investigation of malware incidents (such as the recent attack on Yahoo!) concludes that the advertising sector is unable to police itself with current standards. As such it will require heightened effort from industry bodies to impose security standards and develop networks to share information on cyber threats and incidents, the report concludes.

Additionally, the committee believes that ad networks should implement "circuit breaker" protections in which site administrators or network operators can check and disable ads containing malware code at various points in the ad-serving process.

Should the industry fail to put the needed protections in place, the senators recommend that stronger laws be written and additional powers granted to regulatory agencies.

"Self-regulatory bodies should endeavor to develop comprehensive security guidelines for preventing online advertising malware attacks," the committee said.

"In the absence of effective self-regulation, the FTC should consider issuing comprehensive regulations to prohibit deceptive and unfair online advertising practices that facilitate or fail to take reasonable steps to prevent malware, invasive cookies, and inappropriate data collection delivered to Internet consumers through online advertisements."

The committee is planning to follow up the report with a hearing on Thursday. ®

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