As the world becomes more accustomed to the digital realm, people have become more reliant on the Internet to remain connected, work, shop and play – a reality that has been heightened by the global pandemic.

In their research report, titled “Insights from the Entertainment & Media Outlook: 2019-2023, An African Perspective”, PwC demonstrates that South Africa experienced 24,2% year-on-year growth in 2018 in total Internet advertising revenue. While globally Internet advertising has already become the largest advertising medium by revenue, in South Africa it currently still trails behind TV advertising. However, the country’s Internet advertising market is expected to continue to catch up, rapidly, and grow to R8,7-billion by 2023.

Enter the global pandemic and we can already see this trend begin to take effect, as the TV and digital viewing landscape has significantly, and irreversibly, changed in 2020. Amplified by the lockdown conditions experienced for a large part of 2020, since March, linear TV viewing has experienced compounded growth while uptake of streamlining services has soared. And while this is reasonable, Kaspersky’s research shows that adware is something that has also spread wider.

Lehan van den Heever, enterprise cyber security advisor of Kaspersky in Africa, comments: “Adware, which is advertisement-supported software that creators use to include ads or help distribute other software to make money, is not to be confused or compared with traditional Internet advertising, which still remains very relevant in the local market today. Adware is also not necessarily a bad thing, yet it is something that Internet users need to understand and be cognisant of, to ensure an all-round safe digital experience.”

Notifications per user increased this year

Since 2017, the number of South African mobile device users who have received adware notifications has increased from 203 000 to more than 266 000 by the end of 2019. According to the data from Kaspersky, this growth trajectory suggests that 2020 will likely be no different with another possible jump in these notifications expected, especially as at the end of October 2020, the number had already reached 256 049. Furthermore, at the end of October this year, the average adware notifications per user increased to more than 33 in comparison to 32 for the entire 2019.

Van den Heever adds: “Although the average adware notifications per user has increased this year, looking at the year-on-year figures from 2017, there has been a steadily overall decrease in the number of notifications (96 in 2017), which we believe highlights how the industry has responded to the potential negative side of adware and that consumers are becoming better equipped to detect adware before it infects systems – thanks to the availability of more advanced cybersecurity technology.”

It is important to note that adware by itself is not malicious. In fact, it can be perfectly safe for users and a valid business practice for software developers. While most adware is safe and legitimate, some might have malicious ulterior motives, which can impact a user’s experience online or be a gateway for malicious acts, like malware infection or spying on one’s digital habits. For example, adware often reconfigures the browsers and operating system for advertising purposes without prior notification. It can modify shortcuts to browsers on the desktop, schedule the opening of advertising sites, set a new start page and default search engine in the browser, and tamper with search engine results,” adds Van den Heever.

In most cases, adware programs are not linked to the apps with which they were distributed. Therefore, they remain on the user’s device even after the utilities by which they entered the operating system are deleted or uninstalled.

Other examples include bundled installers (third-party software that ships with phones for example), websites that redirect users to ads, and browser push notifications with ads where a user subscribes to receive updates (such as news alerts) but might get ads instead. Adware is not in itself malware; however, it may be equally unwanted in some cases and it can sometimes assist in the delivery of malware, which may often include spyware.

“Users must carefully scrutinise adware as it can easily flood the device with push notifications sometimes to such an extent that the device becomes unusable. Some types are so persistent that they remain even if a user resets their phone to the factory settings. The best way to effectively combat adware is through installing a security solution, such as Kaspersky Total Security, that can monitor for unusual behaviour on the device,” concludes van den Heever.

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