Hacker claims next round in banner-ad battle

Nobody said the war was over. When it comes to pop-up and banner advertising on Web sites, tempers run high: Dedicated surfers can’t stand the commercial messages, but site operators who depend on advertising revenues want people to see them.

Now a hacker has fired the latest round.

An increasing number of users have implemented Web filtering software – such as the shareware AdKiller, InterMute Inc.’s AdSubtract, Junkbuster Corp.’s Proxy, or Network Software Development Group Inc.’s Surfer’s Aid – to filter out ads.

That didn’t sit well with German Internet company mediaBEAM GmbH, which finances its unified messaging services Web site www.directbox.com entirely through advertising. So the company developed an antidote in the form of software called “AdKey” that blocks the ad blockers – denying access to its site to users who have implemented a filter.

Enter a 25-year-old German man, who announced in e-mail to journalists that AdKey had been cracked just days after it was launched.

“Encouraged either by the bad, ineffective and almost amateurish HTML-coding style on mediaBEAM’s service directbox.com, as well as a personal dislike for forced advertising and the belief that mediaBEAM is not capable of developing the revolutionary software it claims to have developed, a programmer turned the AdKey software almost worthless in a few hours of investigation,” he wrote.

“I’m not really a hacker, but I’m familiar with (HTML),” said the programmer, who did not want to be identified, in a telephone interview. He said that he considered cracking AdKey “a sportsmanlike challenge.”

His e-mail included instructions for how to circumvent the AdKey algorithm, using webwasher.com AG’s popular filter. Following the instructions, this reporter was able to view directbox.com without ads.

Not so fast, said mediaBEAM Chief Technology Officer Jochen Meyer, adding that his company has prepared a Version 2.0 of AdKey, circumventing the anonymous programmer’s trick.

“Our programmers actually enjoy finding out when bugs in their work have been discovered; there’s a little bit of playfulness that goes into it,” he said. “It’s really a beta version, where we’re just testing how the thing works. This is only a simple solution, but I can assure you that AdKey as a product will function quite differently.”

His company will work closely with AdKey users, he said, offering regular updates to counteract any hacks or more sophisticated ad filters yet to be developed.

“You have to imagine it like when someone creates a virus, and people go to (Symantec Corp.’s) Norton… it’s a strike and counter-strike scenario.”

Indeed. The anonymous programmer is already on the case: “I think mediaBEAM will make it as hard as possible to crack,” he said. “But I won’t give up.”

And the arms race continues.