Bots – derived from ‘robots’ – are software programs that can perform specific repetitive tasks automatically. This makes them little helpers that can carry out time-consuming tasks that would otherwise have to be performed manually. Bots can be deployed in different areas, for example, to support communication services or provide other automated services. However, bots can also make life easier for cybercriminals – who mostly use bots to perform automated login attempts across dozens of user accounts, to extract data on a mass scale, to send spam or to drive traffic up to a website so that it is unable to respond to all requests. This can lead to lost revenues for companies on the one hand and attempted fraud against consumers on the other. Read on to learn about the consequences of bot attacks and which effective measures are available to counter them.
How bots work
A bot is a piece of software comprising three core components. Initially, either an application logic or a workflow logic is coded. This allows the developer to define a code that specifies the bot’s tasks and functions.
The bot program also contains a database of the most important information and data the software can refer to fulfil its function. The database is not static and can be expanded depending on the task. This can also be done with the help of a programming interface (application programming interface or API) that connects the functions of a third-party software application. This makes it possible to expand the bot's functionality, for example.
The simplest bots rely on rule-based programming. In accordance with the if-then-else principle, they execute clear, pre-programmed commands and tasks. However, advanced bots can evolve with the help of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML). Consequently, these bots can expand their database and learn new concepts and functions.
Zombie bots and their consequences
Bots can be misused for cyberattacks in many ways and for different purposes. Scam and phishing bots are probably the best-known malicious variants. With the help of fake emails, websites, SMS and such like, bots can acquire data on a grand scale.
The data theft category also includes bots designed for keylogging and filesharing. Spam bots can disable mail servers and steal data in the same way. The login data that is either stolen or purchased on the dark web can then typically be used to carry out automated and comprehensive login attempts as part of credential stuffing attacks.
Once the bots have gained access to a system, they can do a great deal more damage. For example, they can install additional malware to launch ransomware attacks or to infiltrate remote access trojans. Once inside the system, bots can turn a computer into a zombie bot – a term used to describe an infected computer. The computer will then become part of a botnet harnessed to carry out large-scale violations such as DDoS attacks.
The consequences are often serious and extremely varied. This also depends on the type of attack. In addition to data loss and attempted fraud, this can also lead to service interruptions. The resulting downtimes not only cause financial losses but also reputational damage. Companies and organisations must take proactive steps to protect themselves.
Tracking down bots
Bot attacks frequently differ in the way in which they are conducted. For instance, relatively simple attacks can be identified due to their pattern or behaviours.
If data traffic to a website or application suddenly spikes or many requests are made for a specific resource, this is highly likely to be a bot attack. Uncharacteristic user behaviour, such as high click rates or repetitive patterns that differ from human behaviour, can also point to an attack. Another indication is if suspicious or unknown URLs access external websites.
However, the advent of artificial intelligence makes detecting bots and their networks more difficult since they can now imitate human behaviour. This also means that they can adapt to and bypass possible protective measures.
Effective bot defensive measures
To avoid the damage caused by bot attacks, it is important to recognise them as early as possible without impairing the customer experience. All employees must receive regular training that will keep them updated and help them detect even the most sophisticated bot attacks.
Below are the three most important steps to prevent bot attacks:
- Minimise data traffic and detect bots early
Blocking can be an effective method if increased data traffic is detected on a website or in an application. Analyzing traffic patterns may also help ensure that companies do not block legitimate users. This makes it possible to detect unusual patterns that deviate from human behaviour. Another useful measure is to implement rate limits. These automatically limit the number of requests that a single user can make to a website over a specific period.
- Implement security solutions and check systems regularly
Firewalls, anti-virus and anti-malware software, and intrusion detection or intrusion prevention systems are important tools for preventing bot attacks. You must also check the IT systems regularly to identify and eliminate vulnerabilities. This includes importing patches promptly.
- Use CAPTCHAS and introduce multi-factor authentication (MFA)
The use of CAPTCHAS adds an extra challenge that humans can easily master. However, an attacking bot often finds it difficult to solve these little puzzles – which means that the attack cannot be launched in the first place.
To counter sophisticated attacks, we recommend implementing downstream MFA. You can introduce this type of additional security if you suspect that a login attempt may be the work of a bot.
You must implement security measures to protect your company effectively from bot attacks and minimise any loss of revenue. After all, the financial losses will be compounded by the resulting reputational harm. However, you must also ensure that legitimate customers do not suffer as a result of your security measures – especially as bot attacks become increasingly sophisticated.