Skip to Content

Are Ad Blockers Needed to Stay Safe Online?

The New York Times, BBC, and AOL recently served up malware with their ads, causing some experts to say blocking ads is a good way to stay secure.
March 16, 2016

Last weekend some of the world’s largest websites exposed millions of people to malicious software that encrypts data and demands money for its safe return. The incident adds weight to an argument made by some security experts that using software to block online ads is necessary to stay safe online.

Security company Malwarebytes reports that MSN, the New York Times, BBC, and AOL were among those that served up the ransomware, as such software is known. It happened because those sites, like many, use third-party companies to display advertising. Criminals have a strong incentive to sneak malicious ads into ad networks because their reach is huge.

This is far from the first time this has happened—Yahoo, Forbes, and the Economist have all been caught out in the same way in the past. And some research suggests the problem is growing.

Because of this, some security experts say that apart from the ethical and business questions of whether it’s okay to block online ads that support free content, you should do so just to stay safe. That was the conclusion of a study of the malicious ads problem led by the University of California, Santa Barbara, that singled out a popular ad blocker called Adblock Plus as the most effective defense against bad ads. Edward Snowden, the federal contractor who leaked information about NSA surveillance, also recommends ad blockers for safety reasons.

The way some popular ad blockers are trying to make themselves more acceptable to publishers and the ad industry could undermine their protective effect, though. Adblock Plus, for example, will let ads through if they meet certain criteria, such as not showing moving imagery. The company behind the ad blocker even charges companies including Amazon and Google to include their ads in that scheme. Adblock Plus’s criteria for “acceptable ads” don’t include mention of security, and it and other companies that offer ad blockers are unlikely to have the resources to screen out malicious ads.

(Read more: “The Ad Blocking Kingpin Reshaping the Web as He Prefers It,” Malwarebytes)

Keep Reading

Most Popular

A Roomba recorded a woman on the toilet. How did screenshots end up on Facebook?

Robot vacuum companies say your images are safe, but a sprawling global supply chain for data from our devices creates risk.

A startup says it’s begun releasing particles into the atmosphere, in an effort to tweak the climate

Make Sunsets is already attempting to earn revenue for geoengineering, a move likely to provoke widespread criticism.

10 Breakthrough Technologies 2023

Every year, we pick the 10 technologies that matter the most right now. We look for advances that will have a big impact on our lives and break down why they matter.

These exclusive satellite images show that Saudi Arabia’s sci-fi megacity is well underway

Weirdly, any recent work on The Line doesn’t show up on Google Maps. But we got the images anyway.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.