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Twitter’s love-hate relationship with ads, Google’s flop, dangerous search and a big data breach. AdGuard’s digest

In this edition of AdGuard’s Digest: Google comes under fire for its flawed attempt to reinvent ad targeting, Twitter makes a U-turn on third-party clients and criticizes its own ad policies, hackers continue to exploit search ads, while a telecoms giant runs into bad luck for the eighth time.

Google’s replacement for third-party cookies is put on blast

Google’s much-discussed Privacy Sandbox initiative has been dealt a stinging blow. The W3C Technical Architecture Group (TAG) has concluded that it did not meet its stated goal of enabling targeted advertising and protecting users from tracking and profiling at the same time.

The group took aim at one specific element of the proposal, the Topics API, envisioned as a replacement for third-party cookies. In its review of Topics, TAG notes that the technology still allows the browser to share information about the user’s online behavior. Moreover, the data is “gathered and sent behind the scenes,” while the user has no “fine-grained control” over what it reveals about them, the group said. The proposed alternative to third-party cookies appears to “maintain the status quo of inappropriate surveillance on the web,” TAG said, while recommending that Google not proceed with the technology. Google disagreed with the findings, insisting that Topics is a significant improvement over third-party cookies.

TAG is a special working group within the The World Wide Web Consortium, and includes the inventor of the Web Tim Berners-Lee.

We have long argued that Google is up to no good with its Topics API. In our own deep-dive review of the Privacy Sandbox we argued that Topics would still allow Big Tech to profile users and, if anything, would only cement Google’s advertising monopoly.

‘End of an era’: Twitter bans third-party clients

Twitter’s embattled CEO Elon Musk may be busy in court, but that does not mean a pause in Twitter-related news.

Recently, Twitter updated its developer terms to outlaw third-party apps, breaking away from its long-held policy. When asked about the change, Twitter said it was simply “enforcing long-standing API rules.” Twitter’s oldest third-party client, Twitterriffic, which came to iOS even before Twitter itself, was forced to pull its apps from the iOS and Mac app stores as well. In a blog post, Twitterrific said that app’s “sudden and undignified demise” was brought about by an unannounced policy change from an “increasingly capricious Twitter”.

The ban represents a U-turn in Twitter’s treatment of third-party clients — the platform previously tolerated them. The move also signals that Musk’s Twitter is willing to go to great lengths to increase the tech giant’s advertising revenue. Users of third-party clients don’t see Twitter’s ads.

The fact that Twitter is betting heavily on advertising and leaving users with no alternatives in the form of third-party clients makes sense from a business perspective, but is worrying from a user’s point of view. The rumors that Twitter is planning to force non-paying users to share their location and phone numbers for targeted advertising only adds fuel to the concerns.

Musk vows to tackle icky ads, teases ad-free Twitter plan

As if to assuage some of these fears, Musk took to Twitter to state the obvious: “Ads are too frequent and too big on Twitter,” the still-CEO wrote. He then promised to take steps to address the issue “in the coming weeks”, as well as release a higher-priced subscription tier with “zero ads”.

Musk teases ad-free subscription tier for Twitter

This is not the first time Musk has teased an ad-free tier. Last month, the Twitter CEO said that the new plan sans ads would arrive already that year. Currently, Twitter Blue subscribers pay $11 a month (if they buy the subscription through Android or iOS) or $8 (if they buy it through a web browser) to see half as many ads as regular, non-paying users.

Twitter’s introduction of an ad-free tier is a welcome step and a cause for celebration for those who have grown tired of ad-cluttered feeds, but not enough to give up on Twitter. A lot will depend on the pricing, though. We can see that Twitter is trying to walk a fine line between pleasing advertisers and users, and we can only hope that the balance doesn’t tip too heavily towards the former.

Google search is infested with malicious ads, researchers find

Cybercriminals increasingly rely on Google Search ads to lure users to bogus websites laced with malware, BleepingComputer has found. These fake websites often resemble those of legitimate companies, known for open-source software.

BleepingComputer conducted the research after a popular influencer saw all his crypto assets stolen as result of the scheme. The researchers found that in some cases, hackers outbid legitimate developers so the malicious ad appeared at the top of search results, above the legitimate company’s paid ad. Such was the case with CCleaner, a utility used to clean unwanted files. The fake CCLeaner website directed users to download Redline malware, which allowed criminals to steal sensitive personal information such as passwords, credit card details and crypto assets from unsuspecting victims. Together with other security researchers, BleepingComputer uncovered a dozen malicious ads leading to fake websites. In response, Google said it has “robust policies” against ads that impersonate brands and enforces them “vigorously”.

Well, apparently not vigorously enough, because the problem of malicious ads in Google search seems to persist. Last month the FBI even issued an alert about dangerous search ads, urging the public to use ad blockers. Indeed, ad blockers, including the AdGuard Browser extension and the AdGuard app, help protect against the threat of ads placed by cybercriminals. To block most search ads, you’ll need to enable the “block search ads” setting in your extension.

You can enable blocking search ads in your AdGuard Browser extension

Screenshot: AdGuard Browser extension

Not again... Personal data of 37 million T-Mobile customers stolen

Telecoms giant T-Mobile has revealed that it has suffered another data breach, with hackers stealing personal data of some 37 million of its customers. The bad actor apparently exploited a flaw in one of the company’s APIs to retrieve the data.

The breach occurred in early January and was immediately contained, T-Mobile said. The telecoms provider noted that hackers gained access to a “limited set of account information”, including its customers’ names, billing addresses, email addresses, dates of birth and T-Mobile account numbers. No payment information or government ID numbers were exposed, it claimed.

Still, the breach represents a very worrying pattern, as this is the eighth time T-Mobile has been hacked in five years, according to TechCrunch. T-Mobile also famously fell victim to the Lapsus$ hackers, who stole its source code in a series of hacks in March 2022. The new hack, as well as T-Mobile’s history of data breaches, shows that large companies are just as vulnerable to attack as smaller ones. The bigger the company, the more customer data it has at its disposal, the more attractive it is as a target. What this means for us as users is that we need to be very selective about what data we share, with whom, and how much control we have over it.

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