Android and Ad Ware

Like many people I provide a variety of technical support services for less technical family members. Over the last few years I've been encouraging people over to the Apple ecosystem, largely because it's what I use, and it's getting harder and harder to support windows machines when I haven't used a version of windows as a daily computer for a decade. It's not that I don't think that Android, Windows, etc aren't fine solutions for many people; it's just not what I use myself. When I'm explaining how to resolve or debug some issue, over the phone, with only a photo of a screen and a vague description, it's a lot easier to be able to see the exact names of the menu items, etc. So I've been telling people, these are the products covered by phone tech support, otherwise I'll poke at it if we happen to be in the same room, but I can't do it over the phone.

My father in law in recently brought me a problem however that I'm honestly shocked by. He started off the smartphone life with an Android phone, switched to iPhone, and then went back to Android at some point. We were together for dinner on the 4th and at prompting from his iPhone using wife he brought out his Android phone to show me a problem he was having with ads. I've apparently been living in the iPhone world for too long, because I've never seen anything like this.

First off this was a fairly recent model from Samsung, less than 2 years old. He was clear that he had recently updated the system software to the latest.

Even with that, every 2-3 minutes, even when not using an application, he would get a full screen take over ad. The ad could be closed, but very quickly after that another would pop up. This was not on a web page, or in some game, just sitting at the home screen, these ads would pop up. In the bottom corner there was a link to customercare-optout.com but beyond that there was no indication of what was triggering these ads. Was this Android itself, an app, something from Samsung or Verizon. Some quick Googling (probably how we got into this mess) got me here and here and here and a combination of deleting a game, resetting the device, turning off some targeted ad settings, and reinstalling Chrome(!!) seemed to make them go away.

Those message boards indicate that this has been going on for a long time. The domain is registered to a nice looking house in the Dallas suburbs, so I'm sure whoever is running this ad network is doing fine. What I'm shocked by is how on earth Google and hardware manufacturers allow this to continue. I can't think of any justification for a full screen take over of your home screen short of some sort of emergency alert broadcast. That Android even allows this without some sort of very aggressive messaging and confirmation on install of the application indicates something very disturbing.

Installing an application on Android is potentially enough to allow that application to silently inject constant advertisement on the most personal device most people own.

Living in NYC there is a lot of advertising. It's most visible however as subway ads, which are typically more like movie posters and similar. We mostly switched from watching regular TV to streaming services without ads, and that has left us perhaps more insulated from advertising than most. My phone feels like a very personal and private device. When we do watch some sort of live TV, I'm always shocked by the number of ads, especially on something like cable news.

My father in law however, still preferred his Android device, even with these ads to an iPhone, or more accurately he didn't see the iPhone as something he liked. During the time I worked on it, all of the ads I saw were very benign. He was also not as upset about the constant ads as I would have been. It occurs to me that it wasn't that far outside his normal experience. The idea that a full screen ad would take over my home screen and require a tap to get through before I could use my phone would be shocking. To him, just sort of how it is.

There is plenty of evidence (though older than I'd like) that Android and iPhone sell to different groups, and in fact it doesn't look dissimilar from the 2016 election map. We have spent a lot of press talking about the impact of targeted Facebook ads on the last election. It looks to me that for large portions of the US, it would be possible to produce a set of applications connected to an ad network, and with almost no protections send a near constant bombardment of ads all in the gray area. The area where people just think it's normal. An area where it's not monitored for compliance with political advertising laws.