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April 2, 2020 | Paul Mazzucco

The Next Generation of Bot Attacks

It’s an election year, so bots are something you’ll be hearing a lot about between now and… well, let’s be real, probably for many months after the results are in. But bots don’t just pose a threat to the political process, they pose a threat to businesses of all shapes and sizes. In this post, we’re going to focus on how bots continue to evolve and how bot attacks pose a threat to all businesses.

What are Bots?

Bots are pieces of code used to perform repetitive tasks faster and more effectively than humans. Also called web crawlers and spiders, they’ve been around pretty much since the internet began. For example, search engine bots continually search the web for new information, evaluating and indexing it so relevant information can be served up to users.  

Bots can also be instrumental in the functioning of your internal systems. For example, ever-more sophisticated bots are being used to automate tasks such as spinning up and spinning down resources as the needs of the business chance. Bots like these are vital to maintaining performance and controlling costs.

But as the good bots have become more sophisticated, so have the bad bots. To understand this progression, let’s take a look at how bad bots have evolved over the years.

The Four Generations of Bots

Many IT security professionals separate the evolution of bots into four generations. However, it’s important to understand that while bots have evolved, many older generations are still around and can do damage to your systems if the proper defenses are not in place.

First-generation bots

These are single-task bots that perform functions such as scraping websites for information or filling out forms. Because these bots are pretty simple-minded, defending your systems against them isn’t all that complex. For instance, they can’t do things like affirming that they are not a robot, identifying the text in a graphic and retyping it, or clicking on all the images that contain a street sign, usually in a CAPTCHA.

Second-generation bots

The next generation of bots operate in a “headless browser” mode. That is, they can execute JavaScript and maintain cookies (something first-gen bots cannot do), to automate control of a website. In addition to the scraping and other types of attacks performed by first-gen bots, second-gen bots are also used to execute DDoS (Distributed Denial of Service) attacks.

Effectively stopping these bots requires other bots that can sniff out suspicious-looking activity and block it. Because of the good bot’s ability to recognize patterns faster and better than humans, they can do the job more efficiently and far more cost-effectively than an army of IT specialists.

You may also like: The Increased Role of Artificial Intelligence in Data Security

Third-generation bots

These bots are capable of operating in full browser mode and can perform the same functions as a human. They’re used to launch attacks similar to those launched with bots in generations one and two, but because third-gen bots are more sophisticated, they are more difficult to detect and block.

Luckily, while they can perform the same functions as a human, they don’t perform them in the same way. (Who knew our random approach to tasks would be a good thing?) However, the bots needed to detect this generation of bots also need to be more sophisticated with the ability to distinguish actual human behavior from simulated human behavior.

Fourth-generation bots

Cybercriminals are now beginning to produce bots that can mimic the random movement of a human, making them even harder to detect and block. The only defense against this generation of bots is going to be even smarter bots, with the ability to sniff out even the slightest hint of non-random movement. Unfortunately, this is likely to lead to many real users being identified as bots, so vendors will need to find ways to help organizations minimize customer service issues while protecting customer data. This also opens new technologies, like 5G networks, to 4th gen bot attacks.

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What you can do about bot attacks

Today, about half of all internet traffic is generated by bots, and about 20% of that is estimated to be malicious bot traffic. The first percentage will certainly go up as more and more of our daily internet-related tasks are automated. It remains to be seen whether the percentage of traffic from bad bots will go up right along with it.

But even if the ratio remains relatively consistent, next-generation cybersecurity tools (like DDoS Mitigation services and Web Application Firewalls) will need to be able to tell humans from bots and good bots from bad so that information continues to flow freely. Want to learn more about these tools? Contact us today.

In a recent article for Forbes, I looked at the risks 4G bots present to 5G networks and the advancements that are being made in cybersecurity. You can find the article here: Can 5G Networks Stand Up to 4th Gen Bots?

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