Internet bots aren’t all bad – in fact, they’re an essential part of search engine algorithms. The purpose of bots is to perform repetitive tasks – and they do so efficiently. For example, Google uses their own bots to quickly gather and categorize information from the wide web. The possibilities that have arisen from this form of data collection have transformed the way we use the internet. Unfortunately, the bots can also be used for illegal and dangerous purposes. Knowing how to identify such bots and protect your PC or website from them is crucial.
Bots come in the form of malware that infiltrate your PC in order to collect sensitive information like passwords, bank details, blackmail material, keystrokes and more. This gets sent back to a central command system where the information is relayed to the attacker. The bot may cause your PC to crash or wipe all of its data. It could use your computer to send messages through emails or messaging services to people in your contact list, prompting them to click on virus download links. Often, bots will open ‘back doors’ – a point of access by the attacker, which allows them to remotely access your PC. This would make your PC part of a ‘botnet’, which is a network that includes all other PCs affected by the same malware. Bots like these are self-propagating and difficult to identify. Since they can seriously compromise your privacy and result in financial fraud or identity theft, you should know the signs of bot malware.
Risk of bot malware
A PC typically gets infected with malware bots through an online download of its software. Downloading such software is unintended but easily unnoticed. Clicking on links on social media or in emails might prompt a download. You could also be tricked into downloading such malware from deceptive pop-up windows that cause you to click on the wrong thing.
Sign of a malware bot
If your PC has been infected, you may find that your PC takes longer than usual to shut down – or that it crashes when doing so. Computer programs may be running more slowly than usual for no apparent reasons. Spammy pop-up windows could appear even when you don’t have browsers open, and people in your contact list might report strange messages that appear as if they are coming from you. Some settings may have been changed irreversibly, and your overdrive might be running even when your PC stands idle. You may see files or software hidden away, with inconspicuous names, that you do not remember downloading. If you do find such files, then check online to see if other people have identified them as malware.
Removal of malware bots
If you think your PC might be part of a botnet, you should transfer all your data (except for any files you suspect might be infected) to an external storage or a different PC. Disconnect from the internet to prevent the malware from transmitting any information back to its host. Warn people in your contact list that they might receive spammy or suspicious messages containing dangerous links. Change all your passwords (on a different device) and then – finally – look of ways to remove the malware. You can use certain tools to do this yourself, or you can pay professionals to look at your PC and eradicate the bots.
Protection against malware bots
Ideally it will never get to the stage where you have to remove bot malware! Protecting your PC is simple enough, even if the methods are not all fail-proof. Ensure that you have a decent firewall running in the background at all times. Use a browser that warns you of malicious sites before accessing them. Do not click on suspicious links or download unverified software. Always keep your PC updated.
Social media bots
Internet bots don’t just affect PCs. In social media, bots can be used to create accounts, publish spam, send links and more. While most social media platforms have software in place to identify and eradicate these bots, it’s near impossible to wipe out all of them. During sign-up, sites often ask users to enter captchas or perform other tasks before making an account. These tasks can typically not be performed by robots, so are relied upon as a means of distinguishing real human users from algorithms. Many experts warn of an increasingly dangerous role social media bots may play. People’s opinions have been shown to be susceptible to online influence. In a political climate, bots can produce thousands of posts that appear to be in support of one cause or candidate. Poll taking (also often performed by bots) would therefore reflect a false image of general opinion.
Other types of illegal bots
Bots might also be employed on websites where there is money to be made. Major online poker sites in particular are at risk of bots. These so called ‘poker bots’ will enter online poker rooms and play in a certain way to produce an average amount of profit over a certain number of games. Most bots are easily detected by online poker software or other players, since they play in a mechanical way. For example, they may take a specific number of seconds to respond each time it is their turn. The bots will not be able to answer messages in chat boxes, and might make unconventional choices throughout the game, seeing as they can’t analyse poker like a human.
Online solutions to bots
If you run a website with a comments section or forum, you will want to install anti-spam measures to prevent bots from posting messages there. Any sign up page should feature captcha or an equivalent means through which to identify bots. You can also purchase and run software on your site to see which percentage of traffic is real, and which percentage is bot-related.
There’s no doubt that internet bots can pose a serious risk to the unsuspecting PC user or webmaster. Knowing how to identify bots and protect yourself against the them will help you be more prepared should you ever fall victim to this kind of malware.