What is a Botnet? Everything You Need to Know (2023)

By Tibor Moes / Updated: June 2023

What is a Botnet? Everything You Need to Know (2023)

What is a Botnet?

Imagine your computer, smartphone, and even your fridge being hijacked by cybercriminals and used as weapons in their nefarious schemes. Sounds like a plot from a sci-fi movie, right? Well, welcome to the world of botnets, which are turning this nightmare scenario into reality.

In this guide, we will delve into the fascinating world of botnets, exploring their infection methods, targets, and the latest trends in this ever-evolving cybersecurity threat landscape. So buckle up and let’s dive into the mysterious world of botnets!


  • A botnet is a network of devices, often infected with malware, under the control of a cybercriminal for various illegal activities.

  • Botnets can launch large-scale attacks, like Distributed Denial-of-Service (DDoS), phishing, click fraud, and data theft, causing massive digital disruption.

  • Protection includes strong password practices, regular system updates, reliable anti-malware software, and being cautious with suspicious emails and links.

Don’t become a victim of cybercrime. Protect your devices with the best antivirus software and your privacy with the best VPN service.

Understanding Botnets: Definition and Purpose

A botnet is essentially a collection of internet-connected devices that have been hijacked and infected with malicious software, or malware. Each device, known as a “bot”, is controlled remotely by a hacker or cybercriminal called the “bot herder”. Botnets are used to carry out a wide range of attacks, including data theft, crashing servers, spreading malware, sending out spam emails, and generating fake traffic for Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks.

To initiate a botnet attack, a bot herder must first infect multiple devices with malicious code. Once the devices are infected, the bot herder can remotely manage the bots and use them to carry out various malicious activities, such as stealing sensitive information, overwhelming targeted websites with traffic, or distributing malware to other devices. The potential damage caused by botnets is enormous, making them one of the most significant cybersecurity threats in today’s digital world.

The Anatomy of a Botnet

At the heart of every botnet lies a carefully crafted structure that includes bot herders, zombies (infected devices), and command and control (C&C) servers. The main steps in creating a botnet involve exposing vulnerable computers, infecting them with malware, and then gaining control of each compromised device. Bot herders use two distinct approaches to control their army of bots: centralized and decentralized.

Understanding the difference between centralized and decentralized botnets is crucial for grasping the inner workings of these formidable cyber weapons. In the following sections, we will delve deeper into the unique characteristics of both centralized and decentralized botnets, and how they enable cybercriminals to conduct their nefarious activities.

Centralized Botnets

In a centralized botnet, the client-server model is employed, using a command and control (C&C) server and communication protocols such as Internet Relay Chat (IRC) to function. The C&C server sends commands to the infected devices, which then execute the commands and report the results back to the bot herder. This model is popular among cybercriminals due to its simplicity and ease of management, but it has a significant drawback: a single point of failure.

If law enforcement agencies or security researchers manage to locate and shut down the C&C server, the entire botnet is rendered useless. This vulnerability has led to the rise of a more resilient and stealthy alternative: decentralized botnets.

Decentralized Botnets

Decentralized botnets leverage a peer-to-peer (P2P) network structure, eliminating the need for a central command and control server. In this model, the infected devices, or bots, communicate directly with one another, making it much harder for law enforcement and security researchers to disrupt the botnet’s operations. The P2P structure also conceals the identity of the bot herder, further enhancing the botnet’s stealth and resilience.

A notorious example of a decentralized botnet is Storm, which at its height controlled between 250,000 and 1 million compromised devices. As botnets continue to evolve and adapt to the ever-changing cybersecurity landscape, the use of decentralized botnets is becoming increasingly prevalent, posing new challenges for those tasked with defending against these insidious threats.

Infection Methods and Targets

Botnets primarily spread through malicious software and spyware, exploiting vulnerabilities in software, operating systems, and connected devices to infect and control new victims. A particularly notorious example is the Mirai botnet, which scanned the internet for vulnerable Internet of Things (IoT) devices and infected them by trying to log in using common default passwords or through brute-force attacks.

The large attack surface and limited security features of IoT devices make them particularly susceptible to botnet attacks. As the number of internet-connected devices soars, so too does the potential for botnet infections. This underscores the importance of implementing robust security practices to protect personal computers, smartphones, and IoT devices from falling prey to botnets.

Common Botnet Attacks and Examples

Botnets are versatile cyber weapons, capable of launching a wide array of attacks on their targets. Some of the most prevalent botnet attacks include Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks, phishing and spam campaigns, and data theft and financial fraud. Infamous botnets such as Mirai, Zeus, and Mariposa have all made headlines for their disruptive and damaging activities.

In the following sections, we will examine the most common botnet attack types in greater detail, shedding light on the intricate tactics employed by bot herders and their zombie armies to wreak havoc on the digital world.

DDoS Attacks

Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks are one of the primary weapons in a bot herder’s arsenal. In a DDoS attack, a botnet floods a targeted website or service with an overwhelming amount of requests, rendering it inaccessible to legitimate users. There are two main types of DDoS attacks: network layer attacks, which target a website’s bandwidth, and application-layer attacks, which exploit vulnerabilities in an operating system, application, or protocol to crash specific services.

Protecting against DDoS attacks requires a combination of network security measures, such as firewalls, intrusion detection systems, and rate limiting, as well as the use of cloud-based DDoS protection services to detect and block malicious traffic. With the increasing prevalence and sophistication of DDoS attacks, it is crucial for businesses and individuals alike to prioritize their defenses against these devastating cyber onslaughts.

Phishing and Spam Campaigns

Botnets also play a significant role in phishing scams and mass email spam campaigns. Cybercriminals use botnets to send out vast quantities of malicious emails, often containing links to fraudulent websites or malware-laden attachments. These campaigns aim to deceive recipients into divulging sensitive information, such as login credentials and financial data.

To protect against phishing and spam campaigns, it is essential to remain vigilant when opening emails and clicking on links. Always verify the sender’s identity, be cautious of unexpected attachments, and avoid providing personal information via email or unsecured websites.

Data Theft and Financial Fraud

Botnets can also be used for data theft and financial fraud. By leveraging the resources of infected devices, bot herders can steal sensitive information such as passwords, credit card numbers, and banking credentials, or even transfer funds from one account to another without the victim’s knowledge.

To defend against data theft and financial fraud, it is crucial to implement robust security measures, including strong passwords, up-to-date software, and antivirus and anti-malware protection. In addition, always be cautious when providing personal or financial information online and only use secure websites with HTTPS encryption.

Detecting and Disrupting Botnet Activity

As botnets continue to evolve and become more sophisticated, so too must the methods employed by cybersecurity experts to identify, track, and dismantle these malicious networks. Strategies for detecting and disrupting botnet activity include monitoring network traffic for suspicious activity, using honeypots to lure and trap malicious actors, and analyzing malware to identify and neutralize malicious code.

Collaboration between law enforcement agencies, security researchers, and private companies is also crucial in the ongoing battle against botnets. By sharing information and resources, these organizations can work together to dismantle botnet infrastructures, disrupt their operations, and bring cybercriminals to justice.

Best Practices for Protecting Your Devices from Botnets

Safeguarding your devices against botnet infections requires a combination of proactive security measures and ongoing vigilance. Keep all software and operating systems up-to-date to patch any security vulnerabilities and enable the latest security features. Use strong, unique passwords for all accounts and services, and consider using a password manager to help manage and secure your credentials.

Antivirus and anti-malware software is essential for detecting and removing malicious software from your devices. Ensure that your security software is always up-to-date and regularly scans your devices for potential threats.

Finally, be cautious when opening emails, clicking on links, and downloading attachments, as these are common vectors for malware and botnet infections.

The Future of Botnets: Emerging Trends and Threats

As technology continues to advance, so too do the capabilities of botnets. Emerging trends and threats in the world of botnets include the rise of AI-powered botnets, which can launch attacks that are increasingly difficult to detect and stop. Additionally, the growing complexity of botnet attacks presents new challenges for cybersecurity professionals, businesses, and individuals alike.

As we move forward into an increasingly connected world, it is crucial that we remain vigilant in the face of evolving botnet threats. By staying informed about the latest trends and developments in the world of botnets and implementing robust security measures, we can help to protect our devices, networks, and sensitive information from these insidious cyber threats.


In conclusion, botnets are a formidable and ever-evolving cybersecurity threat that requires our constant attention and vigilance. From their complex anatomy and infection methods to the wide array of attacks they can carry out, botnets present a significant challenge for businesses, individuals, and cybersecurity experts alike.

By understanding the inner workings of botnets and implementing best practices for protecting our devices, we can help mitigate the risks posed by these hidden armies of cybercriminals. As technology advances and botnets continue to evolve, we must remain steadfast in our efforts to defend against these insidious threats and ensure the security of our digital world.

How to stay safe online:

  • Practice Strong Password Hygiene: Use a unique and complex password for each account. A password manager can help generate and store them. In addition, enable two-factor authentication (2FA) whenever available.
  • Invest in Your Safety: Buying the best antivirus for Windows 11 is key for your online security. A high-quality antivirus like Norton, McAfee, or Bitdefender will safeguard your PC from various online threats, including malware, ransomware, and spyware.
  • Be Wary of Phishing Attempts: Be cautious when receiving suspicious communications that ask for personal information. Legitimate businesses will never ask for sensitive details via email or text. Before clicking on any links, ensure the sender's authenticity.
  • Stay Informed. We cover a wide range of cybersecurity topics on our blog. And there are several credible sources offering threat reports and recommendations, such as NIST, CISA, FBI, ENISA, Symantec, Verizon, Cisco, Crowdstrike, and many more.

Happy surfing!

Frequently Asked Questions

Below are the most frequently asked questions.

What is a botnet in simple words?

Botnets are malicious networks of computers that have been infected by malware and can be used by criminals to carry out attacks such as sending spam emails, stealing data, and launching Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks.

What is an example of a botnet?

An example of a botnet is a malware-infected network of computers that can be used to launch DDoS attacks, spread malware, and steal sensitive data. Botnets are operated by a single attacker or a group of attackers who control the entire system remotely and use it to their advantage.

Are botnets illegal?

Creating a botnet without permission is illegal, and any tasks associated with it like a DDoS attack are also illegal. The only exception to this would be if a person or entity had explicit permission from device owners to create and control the botnet for legitimate research purposes.

Author: Tibor Moes

Author: Tibor Moes

Founder & Chief Editor at SoftwareLab

Tibor is a Dutch engineer and entrepreneur. He has tested security software since 2014.

Over the years, he has tested most of the best antivirus software for Windows, Mac, Android, and iOS, as well as many VPN providers.

He uses Norton to protect his devices, CyberGhost for his privacy, and Dashlane for his passwords.

This website is hosted on a Digital Ocean server via Cloudways and is built with DIVI on WordPress.

You can find him on LinkedIn or contact him here.

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