How the No.1 most creative person in business this year led the FBI to its biggest ad-fraud bust ever

Tamer Hassan

Tamer Hassan

May 22, 2019 - Jeff Beer of Fast Company writes: This was no ordinary botnet.

On a February day in 2017, Tamer Hassan [pictured] was going about his typical work of monitoring advertising-buying and -selling software for potential security issues when he noticed something strange. Hassan, the cofounder and then CTO of ad-fraud detection and prevention company White Ops, had been tracking a smallish botnet—the term for a network of private computers infected with malicious software and controlled by criminals without the owners’ knowledge—and realized that it had suddenly transformed into a hydra that simply wouldn’t die.

When deployed in advertising, a botnet (“robot” + “network”) creates fake websites and uses automated software to pose as real humans and simulate real traffic—siphoning money from companies such as P&G, Unilever, and other big marketers that spend more than $250 billion annually on digital advertising globally, much of it mediated by software that places ads programmatically.

This one had looked normal enough at first. But any time that Hassan and his fellow engineers attempted to block a fraudulent site from attracting programmatic ads—or restrict any IP addresses that appeared to generate fake clicks on the site—they saw the same activity pop up somewhere else. And there wasn’t a pattern: One day the botnet would use someone’s computer for malicious activity, but the next, that same PC would act normally. Worse, it all now seemed to be accelerating and growing more powerful. More...