mediaBEAM Dismisses Hack Threat

mediaBEAM, a company promising a way for advertisers to block the so-called “ad blockers,” is weathering its first controversy, as hackers successfully find a way around the firm’s AdKEY service.

A German hacker group calling itself the “Anti-AdKEY Initiative” released a statement detailing how a user could successfully counter mediaBEAM’s technology, which is designed to forbid access to Web sites by users of ad-blocking software, such as WebWasher, AdSubtract or the Junkbusters Proxy.

The AdKEY technology is currently in beta but being demonstrated on a site owned by mediaBEAM, which is headquartered in Ahaus, Germany. The system uses Web bugs, HTML coding and Microsoft Active Server Pages to test whether an ad is being correctly downloaded by a user. If it isn’t, then the software displays an error and doesn’t let the user continue surfing. (Ostensibly, the system could tell the user they must pay a fee to access the site without ads.)

The hackers, who mocked the system as “amateurish” in a statement, said they were able to compromise adKEY within only a few hours of experimentation, and have since posted their workaround across the Internet.

Initially, mediaBEAM chief executive Frank Beckert dismissed the hackers’ claim as “definitely not true.” But a few hours later, the firm’s chief technical officer, Jochen Meyer, confirmed that the workaround had indeed worked as described, but since had been rendered unusable by mediaBEAM.

“The method of hacking our software … is no longer possible,” he said, adding that the technology has been upgraded beyond a demo version. “Until now our Web site … has only had a demo version. Our new product, AdKEY, will give the hackers plenty of headaches. The product is based on very simple technology that is not ‘filterable.'”

Meyer also said that future hack attempts are unlikely to seriously undermine the company’s software, because it can be updated centrally.

“I’m already looking forward to the next version of WebWasher to see if they’re able to come up with a way to circumvent AdKEY,” he added. “Even if they do, a new fix will be installed automatically on all servers on which AdKEY is already installed. It will only be a few hours or days before the next posting in a news forum. And we’ll react within minutes.”

“When a hack is developed, we can react in a couple of days on the software side. We look at the issue more or less like a program such as [Symantec’s] Norton Anti-Virus. The software is continually updated and updates are sent to users. As you know, it’s like a ping-pong game. You upgrade, they hack and so it continues.”

mediaBEAM, which launched formally only Wednesday, also said that it plans to release a more secure version of the AdKEY system that will use hardware, in addition to Web page coding.

“Currently, the solution we’re using in AdKEY is entirely software-based,” Meyer said. “We’re very close to introducing a newer solution that is both software- and hardware-based, which will be much more difficult to hack. It’s installed on a server — ours, the clients, etc.”

“Our new hardware solution, combined with the software solution, will facilitate things and make the program much more difficult to hack,” he added. “Think of all the millions of PC’s out there with WebWasher installed. All those versions of WebWasher are going to have to be updated continually. Eventually, people are going to get tired of doing it. Our hardware will be used with only a few thousand servers as opposed to millions of PCs. So we think we’ll win.”

In a statement earlier this week, Beckert said that once the company is finished with its beta test next month, it plans to begin offering adKEY initially for Microsoft’s Internet Information Server and Apache.

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