Bots, a software agent that carries out automated tasks on the internet, can perform actions that are both helpful and malicious.

Bots can, on the plus side, help stop vandalism on Wikipedia or index websites to make them searchable by Google. But they can also be used to spread spam content or fake news, carry out DDoS attacks (if you’re wondering what is DDoS, it stands for Distributed Denial of Service), or perform automated attacks against users.

What good and bad bots share in common is their ability to carry out tasks automatically, at a much greater speed than it would take humans to perform the same action. For instance, even a company with the resources of Google would struggle to hire a team of humans capable of indexing every new webpage or website so that they could be searched.

On the bad side of the bot fence, this speed -- and the fact that malicious behavior does not have to have a human on the other side of the screen performing every action -- opens up some alarming potential use-cases. Unfortunately, these are also increasing as shown by a recent report indicating how the number of organizations detecting botnet activity increased from 35 percent to 51 percent in the first half of 2021.

Types of bad bot attack

While there’s no doubt that good bots are in plentiful supply, there are also no shortage of examples of bad bots in action. There are multiple ways that bad bots can be used to inflict damage online. A few of the most common include:

Web and content scraping: Web scraping bots “scrape” the internet, extracting data and content from different websites. While not all web scraping is bad (for instance, price comparison websites rely on web scraping to create their comparisons), it can also be used for illicitly copying material, which can be used to trick visitors into visiting fake sites. This can additionally damage the SEO score of legitimate websites.

Vulnerability scans: Like web scraping, vulnerability scanning doesn’t have to be malicious. IT companies scan their systems frequently to make sure that network configurations match up with their security policies. However, bad actors will also carry out system scams as a way to gather information about the vulnerabilities of possible targets. In this context, port scanning may be the precursor to a full-on cyber attack.

Credential stuffing attacks: When it comes to internet security, not everyone exhibits the same level of due diligence that they should. As it turns out, lots of people will recycle usernames and passwords on multiple websites or services -- meaning that the credentials you use to access your Facebook account may be the same as the ones you use to access Amazon or your online banking service. Credential stuffing attacks take previously leaked user data and attempts to use it to access other services. Although it’s not the most sophisticated of cyber attacks, the results can be extremely damaging.

Password cracking by brute force: Like credential stuffings attacks, brute force attacks try to illicitly access user accounts online. However, unlike credential stuffing, they may not have a leaked password to use as the basis for their attack. They therefore use brute force trial-and-error attempts to guess sensitive information, working through every combination possible in an attempt to find the right one.

Spamming content: A bit like unwanted robocalls, spambots exist to bombard legitimate users with information that, chances are, they don’t want to hear or see. A spambot may simply post comments on social media pages or website comments sections advertising certain products. But they can also be more sinister by promoting the likes of malware downloads or out-and-out scams.

DDoS: What happens when you get a lot of bots working together? The answer is a botnet: a network of infected internet devices that can be called, Manchurian Candidate-style, into performing attacks without their rightful owner necessarily being aware of what they are doing. A DDoS attack, a.k.a. Distributed Denial of Service, uses a botnet to overwhelm online services or websites with enormous quantities of fake traffic. The goal is to knock them offline, thereby rendering them inaccessible to legitimate users. DDoS attacks are one of the nastiest forms of cyber attack, resulting in considerable financial damage to targets (and being a considerable nuisance to the genuine users hoping to access a site or service.)

Defending against attacks

Protecting against bad bots should be a must for every business. Advanced bot protection tools are able to help secure access points as well as to analyze bot traffic to look for possibly harmful activity. These tools leverage machine learning and assorted other AI methodologies to spot bad bot behavior and take action.

As noted, one of the chief areas companies should protect against involves DDoS attacks. Anti-DDoS measures will inspect incoming traffic and block it in its tracks, while still continuing to allow legitimate traffic through to its final destination.

Bad bots aren’t going away. But by taking the right precautions you can ensure that they do not cause you -- or your users -- damage. Given the potential risks involved, this is one of the smartest investments you can make.

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