What is a Bot?

A bot – which is short for robot – is a software application programmed to execute specific tasks as part of another computer program or to simulate human activity. Bots are designed to automate tasks on their own without human intervention, thus eliminating cumbersome manual processes. These tasks are often highly repetitive, and can be done far more quickly, reliably and accurately than a human.

What are some of the most common types of Bots?

What are some of the most common types of Bots?

Bots can have different functions. The most common include:

  • Chatbot – These bots simulate human conversation using programmed responses. Chatbots are often used in service and support situations, reducing the need for human support personnel.
  • Web crawler – Also known as spiders, these bots scan content on webpages throughout the Internet, indexing the information on search engines. Similar to these bots are web scraping crawlers, which are used for data harvesting and capturing relevant content.
  • Shopbot – Shopbots search the web to locate the best prices on a product.
  • Monitoring bot – These bots are used to monitor the health of a website or network system, and can alert the appropriate IT professionals when a problem is detected.
  • Transactional bot – Transaction bots are used to execute transactions that have been initiated by a human. 
  • Social bot – These bots operate specifically on social media platforms performing a myriad of tasks.
  • Malicious bot – Malicious bots are used by cyberattackers to capture content illicitly, spread spam, or to carry out attacks, such as distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks. These bots are created to run in the background, which means users remain completely unaware their systems have been hijacked.

What is a Botnet?

A botnet is a network of computers that have been taken over by malware. The attacker, sometimes known as a bot-herder, can carry out simultaneous, coordinated attacks using every computer on the botnet to target a specific network or system. Such attacks can involve millions of bots, which means the attacker can orchestrate extremely large-scale criminal incursions.  

Bot-herders typically control the botnet remotely through a command-and-control server. This allows them to steal personal data and passwords, propagate spam messages, or launch other types of attacks, such as DDoS attacks, taking maximum advantage of the computing and bandwidth resources made available through the botnet.

What is the difference between good Bots and bad Bots?

What is the difference between good Bots and bad Bots?

Bots can be both good and bad, depending on who is using them and what their intent is:

  • Good bots are used for a range of purposes that support users and provide invaluable information. The vast majority of bots scan the Internet for content, such as search engine bots, which scan webpages to index content. Other bots, such as customer service bots, engage in chats with users providing greater self-service support capabilities. 
  • Bad bots are typically controlled by cyberattackers who wish to do harm or steal intellectual property. Bad bots might be used to break into user accounts, deliver spam, or conduct other malicious activities.

How are Bots Used?

When used for “good” purposes, bots can be an invaluable customer service tool, functioning as an interactive, 24/7 response to common support questions without having to tie up human resources which can then be redirected to more mission-critical tasks. Bots can also provide scheduling, search functionality, and news and entertainment aggregation. They can be instrumental for instant messenger apps within social media platforms, news apps for curating headlines and stories, music apps for searching and sharing tracks, etc.

Conversely, when used for “malicious” purposes, bots can scrape the internet for email addresses and personal information to be used for nefarious objectives. Bots can also be used across a botnet for DDoS attacks to disrupt operations of a business or government, possibly to extract ransom. They are also ideal for disseminating spam content and other fraudulent activities because of their simplicity, efficiency and cost-effectiveness.  

What does malicious bot activity look like?

Bot activities do not necessarily have to be illegal to be malicious. If the activities violate a website’s terms of service, or robots.txt rules for bot behavior, they qualify as malicious. Whenever a bot engages in acts such as identity theft or account take over, they should be viewed as malicious.

In the case of DDoS attacks, bots are used to create excessive traffic with the goal of overwhelming a web server's resources. This may be with the goal of disrupting operations or preventing legitimate traffic from reaching the server. In either case, the bot activity is clearly malicious in nature.

When DDoS attacks are launched using a botnet, the fact that each bot has its own IP address (often without the device owner even knowing their machine has been hijacked and is being used for an attack) makes it difficult for the targeted server to recognize it is being subjected to a coordinated attack. This also makes it difficult to block the source of malicious bot traffic.

How can companies stop malicious bot activity?

Bot management solutions identify good bots and bad bots, then block malicious activity before it can interfere with vital systems and impact end-user experience. These solutions are able to single out malicious bots using behavioral analysis that detects anomalies, while still allowing useful bots to interact with web systems and networks.