Spyware hunter probes larger market flaws

Ben Edelman earned his reputation battling adware vendors such as 180 Solutions and Claria. Now he's looking to the future and the goal of unbreakable markets that are immune to scams

Ben Edelman made a name for himself while still a graduate student by digging into the shady dealings that spawned what most people considered an innocuous problem: pop-up Web advertising.

From his dorm room at Harvard University, Edelman investigated everything from the shady practices of "legitimate" advertising software companies like 180 Solutions and Claria, to the methods used by the People's Republic of China to filter Internet traffic. His patient research, which was frequently accompanied by movies showing how adware took over computers, prodded regulators to take notice of the adware business, and ultimately forced adware companies to change their business practices. 

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His studies over, Edelman, now a Harvard professor, is preparing to take on his first teaching assignment and told InfoWorld he isn't giving up the fight continuing his work to rid the online world of unsavory activity.

In recent weeks, he's been analyzing complex schemes to inflate the popularity of videos on YouTube -- scams that often have spyware and adware vendors lurking in the background.

But Edelman is broadening his horizons a bit by using lessons gleaned from the world of online transactions and IT systems security to teach business students about more generic market building, while retaining the angle of thwarting misdeeds.

Inside his tidy office at the Baker Library at Harvard Business School in Cambridge, Mass., the well-known malware and adware researcher is currently balancing his online investigations with time spent building a curriculum for his initial crop of students.

Unsurprisingly, the two efforts are related, but anyone familiar with Edelman's work chasing down adware purveyors and other online schemers might be surprised to learn that the content of his class won't revolve around the battle against sneaky online marketers or shameless pop-up peddlers.

Propped in front of a desktop of oversized monitors on which he juggles the various subjects of his daily investigations, Edelman said he hopes his greatest contribution is the notion his work supports of "unbreakable" markets, rather than his dogged efforts to stomp out the Web's badware brokers.

"At a high level, a lot of my work is about systems of measurement, and the idea that in the online environment there's a systematic problem of people having faith in metrics that can be distorted," Edelman said. "My class will be more about economics and the way that people will need to build future financial and transactional systems that are less easy to trick than what we are dealing with today."

Taught with another professor, Edelman said that the class will combine concepts of economics with models of markets development, including online systems, to help students understand how and why so many of today's systems can be corrupted.

In that sense, the malicious hackers, fraudsters, and shady businesses that he has studied since his days as a student fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School have been great teachers. But the root problem is much larger than mere online scams.

"It all traces back to the same issue of accountability, which is obviously a useful topic for someone earning their MBA in today's environment," Edelman said.

"These are not new problems that we're talking about, as people have been balancing complicated risks such as this for a long time. The idea is to help people design market systems from the start with more vision into these types of issues."