What is a Bot?
An internet bot, commonly referred to as a bot, is a software application that runs scripts/tasks automatically over the internet. Bots are cited as comprising two-thirds of internet traffic.
Bots act as an agent for a user or another program by simulating human activity. They’re often used for automatically performing simple, repetitive tasks that would take a human more time to accomplish.
Bots can be categorized as either good or bad, depending on whether they are used for beneficial, intended, and known purposes or exploitatively and dangerously.
For example, “good” bots are used for legitimate functions like indexing web pages for search engines, crawling web pages for data collection, chatting, and autonomous communication (social bots). “Bad” bots are those used for denial-of-service (DoS) attacks and spamming. These bots can even be trained to collect users’ personal information for exploitative purposes.
Recent analysis shows that bad bot traffic is nearly double that of good bot traffic, which has led to the largely negative connotation of the word “bot.” However, when used effectively and thoughtfully, bots can enhance processes like customer support services via chatbots that increase customer engagement. Additionally, some bots can constantly monitor the health of servers in critical systems like healthcare or defense and scale them automatically.
What Are Bots Used For?
Bots are used for various tasks across the internet, such as helping with customer service questions, answering FAQs, and putting customers in touch with support specialists via automated chats. But most commonly, they are used as web crawlers.
Web crawlers, also called search engine bots, are used to “crawl” (read) a website for metadata. Metadata lists keywords that provide information about a web page’s structure. When a user enters a query into a search engine, the query is referenced across indexed metadata, and relevant websites are listed based on the closest (and furthest) match with the query.
But, as discussed above, bots are also often used maliciously. Specific bots can also be trained to damage your website or application. These bots are primarily trained to break into user accounts to steal your users’ personal information. This information can then aid in identity theft or provide leverage during other cyberattacks.
Generally, these malicious bots are disguised as harmless and presented in the form of a download or an invitation to follow a link.
How Do Bots Work?
Bots work by executing a set of predefined instructions programmed by their creator — either a human or another computer program. Once programmed, the bots can start running immediately or lay dormant until a particular keyword is entered or triggered by an event, such as clicking on a link.
Bots can communicate with other bots and programs or with humans. These interactions can take place over different networks, which are generally defined by the bot’s purpose:
- Internet-based services, like instant messaging and customer support, usually take place over public networks. In these instances, a human directly interacts with the bot to communicate questions or issues they’re having, and the bot helps facilitate a resolution.
- Organization-specific networks, such as a private intranet, are used for bot management systems. These systems can be paired with other programs or tools used within an organization to perform actions like sending reports or organization-wide notifications.
Though beneficial and malicious bots function similarly on a foundational level in that they use an available network to perform programmed communications, malicious bots communicate differently: via a bot network. A bot network, or botnet, is a distributed system of bot-infected devices. It’s controlled by a single attacking party, the bot herder.
A bot herder can communicate with the connected devices in the botnet through a command and control (C&C) server or software, which acts as the source from where all the bots receive instructions.
A computer or smartphone might have been added to this system by a malicious bot through a download or clicking on a link from an email without the device owner’s knowledge. Once added to the botnet, the device will act as a source of further attacks on other devices, like sending spam emails to contacts or spying on a user’s financial information through screen recording. All of this is facilitated by the bot herder.
Examples of Bots
Below are some frequently used examples of bots and their uses.
Chatbots are designed and trained using artificial intelligence, machine learning, natural language processing (NLP), which specializes in human-machine interactions, or manual programming to answer FAQs and customer requests. A chatbot’s capabilities are matched to the nature of the website and the questions it’ll answer or ask. For example, it might be trained to assist customers in accessing information about flight reservations.
The chatbot category also includes virtual assistants, bots capable of participating in sophisticated conversations. These bots use high-level NLP, which offers text-to-speech, speech-to-text, and voice recognition abilities. They provide a personalized experience to the user, analyzing the regular device usage and suggesting features accordingly.
For example, if you are not using particular applications on your device daily, the personal assistant would suggest placing them in sleep mode to conserve the device’s battery and memory. Some examples include Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa, and Samsung’s Bixby.
Web crawlers are bots continuously visiting every website and gathering metadata to properly index them in the search results based on their search engine optimization (SEO) ranking. SEO refers to the website’s position on the search engine results page, and the ranking depends on how structured the website’s metadata is and how closely it matches the search keywords from the user.
The more your website maintains its metadata, the more likely it will be listed earlier in the search results. The bots will try to visit as many pages as possible on their first visit to a website, as the metadata is embedded on every page.
The most common web crawlers include Googlebot, Bingbot, DuckDuckbot, and Yandexbot.
Social Media Bots
According to the Office of Cyber and Infrastructure Analysis (OCIA), a social media bot is a program that can be used on social media platforms to perform a variety of practical or malicious tasks while simulating human behavior. These programs may use artificial intelligence, big data analytics, and programs and databases to imitate legitimate users posting content.
Social media bots can be used for commercial purposes like buying or selling a product. For example, you can use Facebook messenger for business if you want to buy or sell on Facebook. Or, if you integrate messenger into your website, you can use Facebook’s chat plugin. Some social media platforms, like Twitter, allow you to create a bot to manage your account.
However, social media bots can also be used for harmful purposes. For example, bots can create fake accounts on social media to spread false information.
Transactional bots are like chatbots, but they’re used to perform a transaction on your behalf by accessing an external API. Although transactional bots aren’t as versatile as chatbots in terms of making deeper conversations, they’re still used in customer-facing organizations to help users make purchases or transfer data.
Denial of Service Bots
Another common malicious bot is the DoS bot. These bots are used to repetitively hit a particular website server, loading its bandwidth with bot traffic that renders legitimate users unable to use the website’s services.
Once the user falls prey to these links, DoS bots install malware that establishes a peer-to-peer connection with the attacker’s system. The attacker can then use your device as a tool to spread malware, thereby growing the botnet. It can also use the devices in the botnet to create a DoS attack on a website.
- Bots are software applications that run scripts/tasks automatically over the internet. They function as an agent for a user or program by simulating human interactions and activities.
- Bots can be both “good” (something you implement to help with communication, customer service, etc.) or “bad” (created and used for malicious intent).
- Malicious bots communicate via a botnet. Botnets can spread by infecting other devices through malicious links or emails, which then expands the malicious bot’s reach.
- Bots serve several different functions, so there are several kinds of bots. Examples include chatbots and virtual assistants, social media bots, transactional bots, and malicious DoS bots.