When bots go rogue Credit: Image credit: Bernard Goldbach via Flickr

Image credit: Bernard Goldbach via Flickr


When bots go rogue

The internet is a big operation, and it’s always growing. With thousands of websites launching every day and search engines churning out millions of results per second, it’s easy to imagine that the web needs a lot of upkeep. Sometimes, this process is too timely and mundane for humans.

Luckily, there are internet bots to keep the internet running smoothly. The latter are software applications capable of running automated tasks on the internet, without the need of human intervention. Usually, they perform roles that prove simple and repetitive for humans, but they can also do so at much higher success rates.

The most common bots are ones that are used in web spidering. In this scenario, automated script is responsible for analysing and filing the data stored on web servers - at quicker speeds than humans. But while these bots have positive uses, is it possible that they can be used for negative purposes on the web?

There are many people in the industry who believe that bots are beginning to go rogue. Just last year, they were used to help sway opinion in the US Presidential Election. According to researchers working on the Project of Computational Propaganda, 18% of nearly 19 million tweets came from automated Twitter accounts. This rose to 27% during the debates.


Spreading spam

Bots clearly have their uses, but they’re proving to be menacing as well. On social networking sites and comment threads, people are using them to spread spam. Daniel Rowles, CEO of Brighton-based digital marketing training company Target Internet, says the content these bots share across the web are often ill-targeted, false and offensive. And humans have full control of them, with the common intention of making revenue.

“When we perceive a bot to be going 'rogue' on the internet, what we are usually seeing is the messy edges of a controlled process, over which the bot's creator has considerable oversight. Let's take social media spam bots for example. You'll have almost certainly encountered spam bot posts on your online travels, whether in YouTube comments, news article comments or on your Myspace profile back in the day,” he says. 

“They might mention earning extra cash from home, hooking up with a sexy singleton online, or something else appealing to our baser desires. These posts generally appear jumbled, unconvincing and ill-targeted, but they will often be fulfilling a so-called ‘black hat’ marketer's click-through or conversion goal criteria for success.

“Every time one of a bot's innumerable human targets clicks a bot profile or a link in a bot post, the unscrupulous marketers behind the bot can celebrate a minor success. Considering the vast scale on which spam bots operate, these small successes can accumulate to form major revenues.”


Influencing opinion

While spam is inconvenient for both internet users and website owners, the fact that bots can influence public opinion is extremely dangerous. The 2016 US Election is a prime example of this, and there’s no doubt that it’ll happen again. Simon Crosby, CTO of security firm Bromium, expects more online criminals to continue using bots to manipulate the democratic process.

“Evidence suggests that in the run-up to the US election, 39% of Trump’s and 37% of Clinton’s Twitter followers were bots. These automated bots share misinformation seeking to influence a voter’s decision. For example, the #TrumpWon hashtag became highly popular, and trended after the first debate,” he tells IDG Connect.

“But it began as a bogus online tag, and many of the polls supporting it were heavily influenced by bots who were sharing the slogan. In fact, the hashtag is said to have been seen first in Saint Petersburg, Russia,” he says.

The worry is that bot misuse is quickly spreading to all corners of the world. “While this kind of cyber warfare was pioneered in Russia, it is already happening all over the world. In the fortnight leading up to Brexit, 15% of 314,000 accounts that tweeted were automated. The Turkish government have hired a number of users to build a social media information army,” continues Crosby.

“And the Twitter bots for the Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro boosted him to become the third-most-retweeted figure in the world. Social media manipulation will continue on a huge scale, and anything that taints the electronic public sphere in this way should be considered a threat to democracy itself.”


A big role in cybercrime

Although bots have been around for a few years, people outside the tech community are less aware of them and the negative impact they can have on the internet. Richard Cassidy, cybersecurity evangelist at Alert Logic, says cybercriminals have been using bots to launch attacks for a while.

“Although bots aren’t new to the world of cybercrime, their use and potential is far less known to the wider community. For some time we’ve mainly seen bot activity related to extortion attempts via DDoS attacks,” he says.

“And in other high profile cases, we have seen them used to steal processing or compute power, either to launch proxy attacks against other systems or as miners for Bitcoin - with some used as distributed decryption networks to aide in breaking into business/user WIFI networks.”


Big role in fake news

However, cybercriminals are quickly learning that bots can be harnessed for more impactful attacks and crimes. In particular, Cassidy points out that they’re starting to think more long-term and are using bots to spread their own messages. That can be through mediums such as blogs, news articles and comments.

“All that said however, well-designed bots can be of far more use to cybercriminal organisations who might think longer term in their nefarious acts. To that end, one could look at the potential for news/blogs/posts to be created through automated programs to influence some political, financial or human rights event,” he says.

“In other cases, they could be used to message across cybercrime organisations, leaving an almost silent trail by which criminals can communicate at the expense of compromised systems. It’s critical now more than ever before to audit every facet of communication across the application stack, monitoring for persistent and non-persistent threat activity.”

There’s no denying that bots are crucial in the daily running of the internet. Without them, humans would have to do more to keep the web afloat, conducting tasks that bots can do better. But there’s a real danger that they’re getting out of control, and technologists are sending a clear message that change is needed.


Also read:
The weird and wonderful future of AI chatbots
Rise of the bots: Why we should be worried by the Foxconn lay-offs
“Bad Bot Landscape Report”: Insight into the rise of advanced persistent bots



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Nicholas Fearn

Nicholas is a technology journalist from the Welsh valleys. He's written for a plethora of respected media sources, including The Next Web, Techradar, Gizmodo, Lifehacker, TrustedReviews, Alphr, TechWeekEurope and Mail Online, and edits Wales's leading tech publication. When he's not geeking out over Game of Thrones, he's investigating ways tech can change our lives in many different ways.

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