Robots are taking over the world! Well, not exactly.
But you’ve probably heard a lot about computer and internet bots recently. Maybe you’ve read about bad bots creating accounts and spamming malicious bot traffic everywhere. Alternatively, you might have heard about the types of bots that make things easier for people to get repetitive tasks done.
Whatever the case may be, you know the bots are coming and you need to be ready for it. This article unravels the mystery of bots so you can identify the different types and see some examples of them in action.
Summary: Bot is short for robot or internet bot. They’re computer programs that act as a sort of agent that simulates human activity on behalf of the user. In their purest forms, bots help users deal with repetitive tasks while providing better services to their customers. But for all of the good bots, there are bad bots too. Some automated bots conduct malicious activity that can range from spamming to helping hackers access accounts.
What is a Bot?
Bots are software programs designed to conduct automated and pre-defined tasks. They usually imitate human behavior in some way, though they’re governed by the programming that defines their actions. Because they’re automated, bots can complete their tasks much faster than a human.
There are plenty of good bots that carry out useful tasks, such as providing customer service or crawling websites for search engines. Unfortunately, there are also malicious bots that spammers and hackers use for spying, interrupting, or gaining illegal access to websites.
Approximately half of all internet traffic comes from bots. That means they’re not some futuristic technology that’s coming at some point in the future. These AI and machine learning-driven creations are already here and they’re doing both good and bad deeds, depending on the user.
The Bot Types – The Good
Let’s start with the good bot types. These are the bots that handle automated tasks on behalf of companies and people. They make life easier because they do all of the manual stuff that’s easy to execute but takes a ton of time to do.
Chatbots are probably the most common type of bot that you’ll interact with on the web. You’ve probably seen them before. You go to a company’s website with a query and see the live chat function somewhere on the page. After booting it up, you’re greeted by a bot that takes down some details and attempts to answer your question.
Chatbots are great for customer service because they allow companies to provide rapid answers to common customer questions. They’re programmed to respond to certain trigger phrases human users type into them. Assuming you hit them with an appropriate trigger phrase, they automatically generate related messages. If the bot can’t provide the answer you’re looking for, it will usually transfer you to a human.
If you’ve ever used a website that looks around to find the best price for a product you want to buy, you’ve probably used a shop bot. These clever bots can scour different websites to provide recommendations. They’re great for helping you find the right product and price.
Some shop bots serve more specific purposes if they’re limited to a single e-commerce website. For example, they may track how you navigate the site and what products you check out. The bot will then customize the site so it shows more of the stuff you’re looking for and less of the products you don’t care about.
Also known as social media bots, social bots do exactly what they say on the tin – operate on social media platforms.
These bots are hit and miss when it comes to being good or bad. On the good side of things, social media platforms and users can use these bots to send automated messages and advocate their ideas.
On the bad side, social bots can create fake accounts that allow social media users to gain followers by gaming the system. It’s often hard for social media platforms to identify social bots because they behave a lot like humans do.
Have you ever wondered how Google can find and rank so many millions of websites?
Once they have the materials, spider bots sift through it all to figure out the types of questions the materials answer. This allows Google (and other search engines) to rank the pages appropriately. Spider bots are often supported by complex algorithms that look at the quality of the content on the pages they crawl.
If you had to wait for a human to process every payment you made online, you’d spend most of your life in front of your computer. Transactional bots exist to make online transactions easier.
On the basic level, these bots take requests to buy items and handle the purchasing side of things. That means you wait seconds, instead of minutes or hours, to buy something online. More complicated transactional bots use natural language processing (NLP) techniques to talk to buyers and help them to make decisions.
These bots collect knowledge for the user based on pre-defined parameters. They’re typically used as research tools that can create a central store of knowledge related to a specific subject. Knowbots save time because they handle the research aspect of seeking knowledge for the user.
The Bot Types – The Bad
For every bot doing good work on behalf of a human or company, there are malicious bots engaged in bad activity. These are the types of bots that we could do with seeing a lot less of when we’re browsing the web.
Have you ever spent hours waiting for tickets for a show to go on sale, only to watch the tickets sell out in a matter of minutes? If you have, you’ve probably encountered ticketing bots. People use these bots to automatically buy bulk quantities of tickets to popular events. The user then sells the tickets, often at an inflated price, to make a profit.
If that sounds like scalping then you are bang on the money. Using ticketing bots is illegal in many countries. Sadly, the bots are often difficult to detect because of how closely they mimic human behavior.
If you’ve ever seen a brand-new app suddenly get thousands or millions of downloads without any reason, you’ve just seen download bots in action. These bots automatically download software on behalf of the user. Unfortunately, they’re almost always engaged in malicious bot activity.
Sticking with the above example, an app developer may use download bots to pad their download statistics. The number of downloads an app achieves is often a key indicator for users when figuring out if they should download the app as well. Higher numbers lead to even more downloads, meaning download bots allow developers to reach more people.
Furthermore, download bots can be used in Distributed Denial of Services (DDoS) attacks.
DDoS attacks work by sending excessive bot traffic to a website. Each bot lodges download requests. When combined, these requests are too much for the server hosting the website to handle, leading to the site getting shut down until the attack ends.
Web Scraping Crawlers
Similar to spider bots, these bots also crawl through websites and download the content they find. The key difference here lies in how the bot uses that content. In some cases, web scrapers obtain specific data points that other websites can use, such as names and product prices. These are legitimate uses that the website owners often support.
But web scraping crawlers can also have more malicious purposes.
Some scrape web pages so they can steal copyrighted material. For example, malicious article websites may use these bots to steal other people’s content and publish it automatically on their website. They can then benefit from any ad revenue the content generates despite not having written the content themselves.
These work in much the same way as chatbots because they simulate human conversation. The problem here is that malicious chatterbots are often used as part of a scam.
Anybody who’s used a dating website may have seen these chatterbots in action. The user creates multiple accounts, each of which is supported by one of these chatterbots. If you strike up a conversation, the bot replies as a human would. But all of the replies come from a non-human user.
Eventually, the chatterbot will do something like offer racy pictures. All you have to do is click on a web link and enter your credit card details to access them. The bot operators using the chatterbot collect those details and may use them to empty your bank account or steal your identity.
Click Fraud Bots
Companies use pay-per-click services to get their products in front of more people. You’ve seen this whenever you search for something on Google. The first few results are ads, which the advertiser pays for based on the clicks the ad generates. A lot of clicks mean the ad costs the company more money, though it also means that more people land on their website.
Click Fraud bots take advantage of this system to harm the companies posting ads. They’ll automatically click on ads hundreds of times, creating a form of attack traffic. Each click costs the advertiser money. But the bot is never going to buy, which means the advertiser spends that money on clicks that will never result in sales.
Traffic Monitoring Bots
Traffic monitoring bots don’t detect bot traffic. Instead, they scan legitimate sources of traffic while looking for specific types of data. People often use these bots to collect sensitive information on a wide scale, which can then be used for blackmail or identity theft.
Some people also use these bots to overload mail servers, resulting in shut-downs that prevent people from sending emails.
Common Bot Examples
There are plenty of examples of bots that you might interact with daily. Most of these have legitimate purposes in terms of improving a website user experience or helping you in your role as a customer.
Many companies use a Facebook messenger bot to ask questions. This is particularly common as a customer service tool. However, many businesses use these bots to pre-qualify customers before a sale, especially if they offer high-end products. In these cases, the bot helps the company to identify legitimate buyers so they don’t waste their time on people who won’t buy.
Google Assistant and Siri are advanced forms of chatbots that are activated via your voice. You ask a question and these bots scour the web to find an answer. You can also use them to activate apps, such as asking Siri to play a track from your Apple Music account.
Spotify has a bot that allows you to share the tracks you’re listening to directly to your Facebook account. This bot is a little more complex than standard sharing bots because it also allows you to search for tracks via Facebook.
Lyft uses a chatbot to let you know where your driver is while you’re waiting. It also provides the driver’s car model and license plate so you know what to look out for.
The Bots Are Here
Bots aren’t good or bad. It’s the bot managers that determine whether bots are used for good or malicious purposes. A good bot manager uses bots to help people. A bad one may use bots to access data and conduct attacks.
There are also many bot types, each of which serves a specific purpose. Some are even capable of learning thanks to modern machine learning techniques. However, every bot you interact with is also tied to its own programming. It can never do anything other than what its code tells it to do.
This means bots aren’t necessarily something you need to fear. As long as you’re wary of the bad types of bots, you can avoid the problems that malicious bot operators create.
Frequently Asked Questions
What does a bot do?
It all depends on the user’s intentions and the type of bot in question. Generally speaking, internet bots allow users to automate repetitive tasks, saving them time and effort. It’s the task being automated that varies.
How do bots evade detection?
Malicious bots can evade detection once they understand the logic a system uses to try and find them. Once they know how to evade the system, they can send fake data to bypass detection efforts and conduct their tasks.
Why do cybercriminals use bots?
Cybercriminals and hackers use bots to conduct attacks and help them force their way into systems. They may also use bots to spam websites or social media platforms, usually for some form of monetary gain.
Author: Tibor Moes
Founder & Chief Editor at SoftwareLab
Tibor is a Dutch engineer and entrepreneur. He has tested security software since 2014.
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