What is a bot?
A bot is a software application that is programmed to do certain tasks. Bots are automated, which means they run either continually or in response to whatever they are instructed to respond to, without a human user needing to give them further instructions. Bots often imitate or replace a human user's behavior. Typically they do repetitive tasks, and they can do them much faster than human users could.
Bots usually operate over a network; more than half of Internet traffic is bots scanning content, interacting with webpages, chatting with users, or looking for attack targets. Some bots, like search engine bots that index content for search or customer service bots that help users, are useful. Other bots are "bad" and are programmed to break into user accounts, scan the web for contact information for sending spam, or perform other malicious activities. If it's connected to the Internet, a bot will have an associated IP address (which comes in handy for blocking the malicious ones).
Bots can be:
- Chatbots: Bots that simulate human conversation by responding to certain phrases with programmed responses
- Web crawlers (Googlebots): Bots that scan content on webpages all over the Internet
- Social bots: Bots that operate on social media platforms
- Malicious bots: Bots that steal content, perform fraudulent activities, or carry out DDoS attacks
What constitutes malicious bot activity?
Any automated actions by a bot that violate a website owner's intentions, the site's Terms of Service, or the site's Robots.txt rules for bot behavior can be considered malicious. More obviously, bots that attempt to carry out cybercrime, such as identity theft, account takeover, or sending people advertising without their opt-in are also "bad" bots. While some of these activities are illegal, note that bot activity does not have to break any laws to be considered malicious.
In addition, excessive bot traffic can overwhelm a web server's resources, slowing or stopping service for the legitimate human users trying to use a website or an application. Sometimes this is intentional and takes the form of a DoS or DDoS attack.
Malicious bot activity includes:
- Credential stuffing
- Web/content scraping
- DoS or DDoS attacks
- Brute force password cracking
- Inventory hoarding
- Spam content
- Email address harvesting
- Click fraud
To carry out these attacks and disguise the source of the attack traffic, bad bots may be distributed in a botnet, meaning copies of the bot are running on multiple devices, often without the knowledge of the device owners. With bot traffic coming from so many IP addresses, it's more difficult to identify and block the source of the malicious bot traffic.
How can companies stop malicious bot activity?
The best strategy for bot protection is using a bot management solution that is able to sort out harmful bot activity from user activity and helpful bot activity via machine learning. Bot management stops malicious behavior without impacting the user experience or blocking good bots. Bot management solutions should be able to identify and block malicious bots based on behavioral analysis, block bots with negative IP address reputations, and still allow helpful bots to access web properties.