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Pi-hole drops support for ad blocklists used by browser-based ad-blockers

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Pi-hole, a popular ad-blocking software, has dropped support for AdBlock-style blocklists — the types of lists used by browser-based adblockers to stop ads.

Pi-hole is a type of software that users can install on Linux servers or Raspberry Pi boards. It works by sinkholing traffic based on a list of domain names from advertising, tracking, and analytics services.

It is a so-called network-level ad blocker, working similarly to a firewall, but for ads, and allowing users to block ads for all devices inside a network, rather than inside a browser. The software has been around for years, has become extremely popular, and is installed on more than 12,000 servers across the world.

Pi-hole drops support for AdBlock-style blocklists

But in a recent update, Pi-hole creators announced they were dropping support for “AdBlock-style blocklists,” named so after AdBlock, the first ad-blocking browser extension.

The syntax and formatting of this extension’s blocklist has spread and has become an informal standard across fellow browser-based ad-blocker extensions.

Pi-hole creators said they decided to drop this type of ad-blocking blocklist format because it was never meant for Pi-hole systems, and users employing these types of lists were creating “far too many false positives,” blocking domains that were never meant to be blocked.

As a result of this recent change, Pi-hole developers said that users “may notice a reduction in the number of blocked domains” going forward, something that Pi-hole users won’t be too happy to hear.

The two ad-blocking “worlds”

“There are basically two different ad blocking worlds,” Andrey Meshkov, CEO of AdGuard, a company that makes ad-blocking software, told ZDNet this week.

“First is traditional ad blockers like uBlock Origin, AdGuard, AdBlock Plus. You know them all. We all use the ‘AdBlock-style’ filter lists, which are quite complicated and allow specifying different kinds of ‘patterns’ and matching criteria.”

“Here’s an example of a simple rule that will match third-party javascript files: ||example.org^$third-party,javascript

“The second world is ‘DNS-level’ or ‘hosts-level’ ad blockers,” Meshkov said. These are very simplistic, practically listing all domains to be blocked, one under the other. These are used by software like Pi-hole, AdGuard Home, Adaway, Blockada, AdGuard Pro for iOS, etc..

“These DNS-level ad blockers are kinda limited as the only thing they can block or unblock are domain names. They don’t see the individual HTTP (or any other protocol) requests going through TCP or UDP connections,” the AdGuard CEO said.

“The problem is that using this approach isn’t enough to block some ads,” Meshkov added. “For instance, the Facebook ad network loads its mobile ads by sending an HTTPS request to https://graph.facebook.com/network_ads, and with a DNS-level ad blocker, the best you can do is blocking the whole graph.facebook.com domain and breaking all Facebook apps.”

AdBlock-style lists are superior

The AdGuard CEO argues that using classic AdBlock-style blocklists is superior, as this helps block more ads due to these blocklists ability to drill-down network requests and look for the ad code, rather than bluntly blocking an entire domain.

Furthermore, there’s also the issue of performance.

“Traditional ad blockers spent quite some time improving their filtering engines, optimizing the memory footprint, and making them fast enough,” Meshkov told ZDNet.

On the other side, using DNS/host-based blocklists — like the ones Pi-hole will be using from now on — have a major disadvantage, which is size.

“Hosts blocklists are ridiculously huge,” Meshkov said. “Energized or DBL have over one million hostnames.

“This is mostly because there’s no pattern-matching, and instead of having one rule like this ||doubleclick.net^, there are 24917 doubleclick.net subdomains.”

Dropping AdBlock-style blocklists is a “mistake”

“Most of the AdBlock-style filter lists are not supposed to be used in the DNS-level ad-blocking software [like Pi-hole]. They were created specifically for the traditional ad blockers,” Meshkov told ZDNet.

“And I think this is why they decided to drop support, they are just tired of people trying to use EasyList or EasyPrivacy in Pi-Hole and then dealing with lots of false positives.

“However, I think this is a mistake. I actually think that AdBlock-style syntax is superior to hosts blocklists, and instead, they should have urged blocklists maintainers to start using it so that there were more proper blocklists,” Meshkov added.

“In an ideal world where everyone uses the same syntax, the filter lists would be compatible, and it would be easier for people to contribute to both hosts blocklists and traditional filter lists.

“Instead of that, by making this change, Pi-Hole encourages people to continue using the old approach, and increase the blocklists’ size even more,” the AdGuard CEO added.

Pi-hole v4.3.2, released last weekend, is the first version that dropped classic AdBlock-style blocklists.



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The Five Pillars of (Azure) Cloud-based Application Security

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This 1-hour webinar from GigaOm brings together experts in Azure cloud application migration and security, featuring GigaOm analyst Jon Collins and special guests from Fortinet, Director of Product Marketing for Public Cloud, Daniel Schrader, and Global Director of Public Cloud Architecture and Engineering, Aidan Walden.

These interesting times have accelerated the drive towards digital transformation, application rationalization, and migration to cloud-based architectures. Enterprise organizations are looking to increase efficiency, but without impacting performance or increasing risk, either from infrastructure resilience or end-user behaviors.

Success requires a combination of best practice and appropriate use of technology, depending on where the organization is on its cloud journey. Elements such as zero-trust access and security-driven networking need to be deployed in parallel with security-first operations, breach prevention and response.

If you are looking to migrate applications to the cloud and want to be sure your approach maximizes delivery whilst minimizing risk, this webinar is for you.

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Data Management and Secure Data Storage for the Enterprise

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This free 1-hour webinar from GigaOm Research brings together experts in data management and security, featuring GigaOm Analyst Enrico Signoretti and special guest from RackTop Systems, Jonathan Halstuch. The discussion will focus on data storage and how to protect data against cyberattacks.

Most of the recent news coverage and analysis of cyberattacks focus on hackers getting access and control of critical systems. Yet rarely is it mentioned that the most valuable asset for the organizations under attack is the data contained in these systems.

In this webinar, you will learn about the risks and costs of a poor data security management approach, and how to improve your data storage to prevent and mitigate the consequences of a compromised infrastructure.

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CISO Podcast: Talking Anti-Phishing Solutions

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Simon Gibson earlier this year published the report, “GigaOm Radar for Phishing Prevention and Detection,” which assessed more than a dozen security solutions focused on detecting and mitigating email-borne threats and vulnerabilities. As Gibson noted in his report, email remains a prime vector for attack, reflecting the strategic role it plays in corporate communications.

Earlier this week, Gibson’s report was a featured topic of discussions on David Spark’s popular CISO Security Vendor Relationship Podcast. In it, Spark interviewed a pair of chief information security officers—Mike Johnson, CISO for SalesForce, and James Dolph, CISO for Guidewire Software—to get their take on the role of anti-phishing solutions.

“I want to first give GigaOm some credit here for really pointing out the need to decide what to do with detections,” Johnson said when asked for his thoughts about selecting an anti-phishing tool. “I think a lot of companies charge into a solution for anti-phishing without thinking about what they are going to do when the thing triggers.”

As Johnson noted, the needs and vulnerabilities of a large organization aligned on Microsoft 365 are very different from those of a smaller outfit working with GSuite. A malicious Excel macro-laden file, for example, poses a credible threat to a Microsoft shop and therefore argues for a detonation solution to detect and neutralize malicious payloads before they can spread and morph. On the other hand, a smaller company is more exposed to business email compromise (BEC) attacks, since spending authority is often spread among many employees in these businesses.

Gibson’s radar report describes both in-line and out-of-band solutions, but Johnson said cloud-aligned infrastructures argue against traditional in-line schemes.

“If you put an in-line solution in front of [Microsoft] 365 or in front of GSuite, you are likely decreasing your reliability, because you’ve now introduced this single point of failure. Google and Microsoft have this massive amount of reliability that is built in,” Johnson said.

So how should IT decision makers go about selecting an anti-phishing solution? Dolph answered that question with a series of questions of his own:

“Does it nail the basics? Does it fit with the technologies we have in place? And then secondarily, is it reliable, is it tunable, is it manageable?” he asked. “Because it can add a lot overhead, especially if you have a small team if these tools are really disruptive to the email flow.”

Dolph concluded by noting that it’s important for solutions to provide insight that can help organizations target their protections, as well as support both training and awareness around threats. Finally, he urged organizations to consider how they can measure the effectiveness of solutions.

“I may look at other solutions in the future and how do I compare those solutions to the benchmark of what we have in place?”

Listen to the Podcast: CISO Podcast

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