Most of the time the adverts within mobile applications are merely irritating. At their worst, however, they can be obscene, harmful or even fraudulent, with malware, mis-directs or pornographic material just three of the various ‘bad ads’ that hide within platforms.
For three guys working in the mobile ad industry the issue of bad ads was common but one that lacked a coherent solution. “It was coming up a lot,” recalls Chris Damski, Chief Product Officer at Pubguard. “There were a number of high-profile incidents of bad content, often pornographic content, being shown to kids. There wasn’t anything specifically catching them, so we thought we’d like to have a crack at solving the problem.”
He speaks on behalf of Justin Wenczka and Dan Hapgood, respectively CEO and CTO of the cyber security start-up – Pubguard – the three have founded to tackle the issue of bad ads. Chris acts as Chief Product Officer and can currently be found at CyLon, a cyber security accelerator programme sponsored by Nominet.
He has nothing but praise for CyLon, which has provided “some great connections” and introduced them to “some really good companies.” Pubguard is hopeful the programme will prove financially useful too, with positive meetings with potential investors, “plus it’s been really interesting to meet the other companies in the cohort that are more nascent than we are.”
With three clients already secured Pubguard is certainly a more mature start-up. “I think we’re installed on 20-30 million devices worldwide and we are scanning a few thousand ads every seconds,” explains Chris. “If you’re in the UK, there is a pretty good chance our software is on your phone.”
The Pubguard software is designed to protect publishers, who technically bear the responsibility for all content on their platforms, including ads. Pubguard monitors all the ad traffic in real time and creates a platform for the publishers on which the bad ads are flagged. “We have a solution for automatically blocking anything that is trying to redirect the user,” says Chris, “and we can pick up things that pop up, like ‘your phone is vulnerable’ messages. We can also provide evidence of suspicious activity to the publisher, as well as helping to track issues that users might complain about.”
The biggest surprise for Chris has been the disinterest of some publishers in the quality and health of the ad traffic moving across their platforms. “We went into this thinking they would care more about this stuff – and a lot of them do – but I was really surprised how little some of them care. They make a lot of money from ads – it pays their salaries – and so they see the bad bits as just a tax on what they do.” This chimes with the ongoing complaints that platforms like Facebook and Twitter are facing over seemingly lacklustre efforts to remove harmful content. As Chris says, “it’s about them not controlling their platform and not locking it down. They do a very good job of trying to avoid responsibility for it.”
While this insight into the “seedy underbelly” of technology and the internet may sound dispiriting, Chris has a real enthusiasm for the work he does with Pubguard. He certainly cried no tears when he left his previous job to join the start-up full time a number of years ago. “What we do now is really interesting. We’re creating things and breaking things!” he admits.
Chris is also something of an accidental technologist. He studied Economics at university and only gradually moved into the arena as his jobs began to include elements such as programming and back-end engineering. He took to it immediately, having been brought up by a father with a passion for technology and who worked in engineering and computer science. “We always had a computer at home, and he loved it,” Chris recalls. “I think the logical nature of computing appealed to us both.”
His co-founders Justin and Dan have similar interests in technology but bring complementary skills. Dan has a degree in Computing and Informatics while Justin specialised in business development, with a degree in Design for Interactive Media. As a trio, they cover all the bases required to create and sell the product, and they are quietly confident of success. It helps, suggests Chris, that “most people immediately know what you’re talking about when you say we can block bad ads.”
“Cyber security start-ups are often so complicated to describe that investors can’t understand them, which doesn’t make them particularly inclined to stump up lots of cash,” concludes Chris. “It’s made our lives a lot easier to have an accessible product.”