About half of today’s Internet traffic is made up of bots that simulate human communication in social networks, crawling Internet content for business, optimizing search engine functionality, automating customer service, or promoting criminal activity such as theft. data, scams and DDoS attacks.
Bots are digital tools and, like any tool, they can be used for good or bad. Knowing about bots and their capabilities is key to knowing how bots can help businesses by automating simple, repetitive tasks or when to boost your IT security.
What is a bot?
The term “bot” comes from English and refers to robots. Like mechanical bots, Internet bots are programmed to perform specific repetitive tasks. They do this by executing precisely defined commands in the form of algorithms and scripts that they can implement faster than any human being. Acting independently and automatically, bots are computer programs that do not depend on human collaboration or supervision to perform their function.
World Wide Web Wanderer was the first Internet bot and measured the growth of the Internet from 1993 by recording the data collected in the index called Wandex. The field of application of bots today is very wide: they are used as chatbots in customer services; they act as social bots in social networks; they analyze web pages in the form of crawlers; or they carry out spamming and phishing attacks in a botnet.
How does a bot work?
The easiest way is to compare how bots work with mechanical robots. Unlike the latter, bots are not made of hardware – such as screws, threads, plastic, and cables – but of code. The code contains the commands and instructions telling the bot how to communicate with human users, systems or other bots in an active or reactive way.
The design of bots can be very simple, but modern bots use complex code and artificial intelligence. They are then sometimes practically inseparable from human users on social networks. Nowadays, even laymen can program a bot. A multitude of tools and interfaces are available online and allow users to design simple or complex bots. Twitter, for example, offers its users the possibility of creating their own chatbots for tweets, retweets and likes.
Above is a snippet of chatbot code. In this example, the bot relies on the XML-based AIML description language often used for chatbots.
<pattern> What’s your name? </pattern>
<template> My name is chatbot. </template>
<pattern> What are you? </pattern>
<srai> Who are you? </srai>
Based on the algorithms defined in the code, bots can perform different simple or complex tasks. Communication is typically carried out through Internet-based platforms and services such as Instant Messaging (IM) or Internet Relay Chat (IRC).
What can be the features of a bot?
Like the areas of application of this technology on the Internet, the functionality and tasks of a bot can be very diverse. Some of the most common bot features include:
support for communication services on instant messaging services such as Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp;
independent datascraping, searching for information on websites using keywords, matches or hashtags as well as analysis and indexing (datacrawling);
the simulation and automation of a predefined communication by specific keywords, algorithms or hashtags (eg in chats, on websites or in customer services);
the use of interfaces with other applications and bots for additional functionality (eg by collecting and displaying data from weather or road traffic applications);
the provision and execution of automated services such as translations, personalized advertising or orders;
offering game features such as chess;
training botnets to network computers to steal data, carry out scams and DDoS attacks.
What is the structure of a bot?
Basically, a bot is made up of three main components:
1) Application logic or workflow logic: This is executable, machine-readable code that programmers write to define the bot’s features and tasks.
2) A database: it contains the main data and information which the program can access to perform its function. In the case of search engine bots (crawlers), the database can be actively expanded.
3) An API (Application Programming Interface): these are programming interfaces that allow programmers to access the functionality of other applications without having to write them themselves. Through specific code interfaces, APIs can embed commands from third-party software into the bot’s code and extend its functionality. For example, a chatbot can integrate the functionality of a road traffic application into its code and provide users with traffic information via the interface.
Rule-based and self-learning bots
Bots with a simple design use the principle of rule-based “if-then-else” programming and perform precise, pre-programmed commands and tasks. Modern bots are now able to grow using artificial intelligence, expand their own database, and learn new features and terms. They can thus be subdivided into rule-based bots and self-learning bots.
Based on their main features, rule-based bots and self-learning bots can be classified into five groups:
1) Entertainment bots;
2) Commercial bots;
3) Service bots;
4) Mail bots;
5) Malicious bots.
What types of benevolent bots are there?
Bots can be used in a wide variety of areas of the Internet. They have in common to offer a service that can be used for legal or illegal purposes.
Common benevolent bots include:
Social bots: generic term designating all bots acting on social networks and performing automated tasks in the areas of assistance, FAQs, Direct Messaging, comments of contributions or likes, shares, retweets and page tracking;
Indexing robots: these bots collect and evaluate data and information from websites in order to extend the functionality of search engines and comparison portals, to record and index new web content, to establish links and optimize search queries;
Chatbots: they mimic human users of chats and simulate natural communication in order to receive e.g. customer inquiries as part of customer service and process FAQ requests as identifiable bots or to simulate the identity of a real user as hidden bots;
Gaming bots: these bots play the role of digital teammates in video games (non-player characters);
Shopping bots: these bots compare prices in online stores and search for the most advantageous offers or select the most popular shopping pages for users;
Monitoring bots: they monitor the health of a website or system.
What types of malicious bots are there and how do they work?
While bots offer many positive features, and although many services – such as search engines, instant messengers, or comparison portals – wouldn’t be possible without them, bots largely get a bad rap because of malware and hacker attacks. Indeed, many types of bots have been developed specifically for illegal and noxious purposes.
Some malware and malicious bots include:
Propaganda or manipulation bots: these are social bots simulating user profiles, exploiting digital culture and disseminating political statements, fake news and conspiracy theories or reacting to keywords in comments and posts;
Scam / Phishing Bots: These bots steal data through pseudo-links, e-mails and spurious websites;
Keylogger bots: bots that record message traffic or log, record and redirect any activity on a PC;
File sharing bots: bots that respond to targeted search requests and provide users with a link to a desired keyword. If the user clicks on this link, the bot can infect the PC used;
Spamming bots: they send large amounts of spamming emails and use the address books and contacts of naive users to expand their spamming radius in a targeted manner;
Zombie bots: Zombie bots are computers infected with malware by bots or as part of a botnet and making their computing power available for large-scale botnet attacks. Identifying that infected PCs are part of a botnet is often not easy;
A botnet: refers to all infected PCs gathered in a network and used for DDoS attacks by malicious bot users.
If you are doing online marketing, you should simplify and automate task management by using beneficial bots. Likewise, bot management should be an integral part of your business IT security. With bot management, you will be able to identify malicious bots more easily and better protect your website or online store against this threat. Conversely, you can allow access to bots whose benevolence is common knowledge.
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