Bots are automated software programs designed to carry out various tasks, including both helpful and malicious activities.

Bots are software applications or scripts that perform automated tasks over the Internet, often mimicking human behavior. Automations such as search engine crawlers and chatbots have become an integral part of our online experience, revolutionizing the way people and organizations interact with technology. Understanding both the positive and nefarious role of bots on websites, applications, and systems is key to building a better—and safer—digital world.

Bot Uses and Applications

Bot is short for robot, a software program or script that performs automated, repetitive, pre-defined tasks. Bots are omnipresent on the web; it is estimated that up to 50% of Internet traffic is from non-human visitors. Bots are designed to imitate, augment, or replace human user behavior on the web; however, bots operate much faster than humans and can be scaled into botnet armies that are relentless in pursuit of their assigned task. Depending on how they are designed, they can be helpful—like shopbots or monitoring bots, or they can be malicious, misleading users, stealing data, generating denial of service attacks, compromising customer accounts, and helping criminals commit fraud and identity theft.

Businesses and organizations face the challenge of blocking malicious bots without impacting the good bots that help facilitate online commerce, all without strict bot management controls like CAPTCHA or multi-factor authentication (MFA) that create friction for your legitimate users. 

Types of Bots

Good bots

Bots perform many helpful or useful tasks on the web. Search engines employ web crawlers or spiders to scour and index billions of web pages and make the results available to search engines. Tracking and monitoring bots also comb through the web, but are designed to search out and flag specific types of content, perhaps related to pricing or news, or copyright infringement. Personal assistants like Alexa or Siri are also bots, deployed across the web to search for answers to queries or other requests. Social media bots perform automated tasks on social media platforms, and can engage with users, like posts, follow accounts, and even generate content.

Another excellent example of friendly bots are chatbots, which automate customer service on websites. These bots can be programmed with artificial intelligence and natural language processing to provide information or answer questions via on-line chat conversations or text-to-speech interactions, with the ability to analyze requests and provide responses at an almost human level.

Malicious bots

The ability of bots to automate repetitive tasks can also be employed with malicious intent. Cybercriminals program malicious bots to launch a wide range of creative, complex, and stealthy attacks that seek to exploit attack surfaces across web properties and applications. One of the most common attacks is credential stuffing, which commonly leads to account takeover and fraud. These automated attacks use stolen usernames and passwords against web login forms to gain access and control online accounts. Similarly, criminals can use bots to automate the account creation process and establish false accounts that are used for fraudulent purposes, or program bots to apply for credit cards or loans to defraud financial institutions. Gift card cracking and loyalty point fraud are type of abuse in which bots identify accounts that hold value, and then redeem or otherwise monetize the value before the legitimate customer can use it.

Reseller bots, sometimes referred to as scalper bots, are programmed to buy up mass amounts of goods or services, which are usually resold on secondary markets at a significant mark-up. These bots allow criminals to control inventory or prices, leading to artificial scarcity, denial of inventory, and consumer frustration.

Content scraping involves the use of automated bots to analyze and collect large amounts of content from a target website in order to reuse or sell that data elsewhere. This can lead to price manipulation and the theft of copyrighted content; high levels of content scraping activity can also impact site performance and prevent legitimate users from accessing a site.

Degrading site performance is the intended goal of distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks, when criminals direct large numbers of bots from multiple connected devices to overwhelm websites, servers, or networks, resulting in a denial of service to normal, legitimate traffic, impacting an entire online user base. DDoS attacks can be extremely destructive, leading to loss of revenue, extortion, and long-term reputation damage.

Addressing Bot Risks and Security

Bot security is of paramount importance in today's digital landscape to safeguard against malicious activities and potential threats. As artificial intelligence and automation technologies continue to advance, so do the capabilities and sophistication of malicious bots and automation. Automated attacks can cause severe damage to individuals, businesses, and organizations and represent more than a threat to security infrastructure. They represent an economic challenge that must be addressed to defend an organization’s business operations and fiscal health; shield your customers and employees; and protect your corporate reputation.

Financial services and e-commerce sites are particularly attractive targets for bot attacks because these businesses process a massive number of financial transactions and store large quantities of customer and employee data, including online payment details.

Bot management solutions play a vital role in identifying and mitigating bot traffic, distinguishing between legitimate users and malicious bots. These solutions utilize advanced techniques such as behavioral analysis, device fingerprinting, and machine learning algorithms to accurately detect and respond to anomalous activity indicative of bots. These solutions can also recognize legitimate users and optimize authentication without using strict security challenges, making it easier for customers to transact.

When considering bot control technologies, it is useful to distinguish between bot management and bot mitigation. Bot management refers to the strategies and practices used to handle bots that interact with web applications. The goal of bot management is not solely to block or mitigate bots but also to differentiate between legitimate bot traffic (for instance, search engine crawlers) and malicious bots. Bot mitigation specifically focuses on the process of reducing or eliminating the impact of malicious bots on web applications. It involves implementing defensive measures to prevent bots from successfully performing harmful actions or attacks.

The techniques that bad actors use to commit fraudulent acts online are always evolving, with criminals continuously retooling bots to bypass anti-automation defenses, or pivoting from targeting an organization’s web apps to its APIs, which may not have the same robust bot mitigation controls. Human security teams alone can’t defeat the forces of bot automation. What’s needed are bot defense technologies that constantly analyze devices and behavioral signals and use tools like artificial intelligence and machine learning to detect and deter bot-based attacks. With tools like these, organizations can build a better digital world in which everyone can enjoy the benefits of digital experiences without compromising safety or privacy.

How Does F5 Handle Bots?

 F5 offers a range of products and services to mitigate bot-related risks and deter automated fraud and abuse. By utilizing these solutions, security professionals and fraud teams can enhance their security posture and protect their organizations from the damaging effects of bots and malicious automation.

The recent proliferation of architectures, cloud, edge environments, and complex software supply chains has expanded the risk surface for attackers. It’s no surprise that attackers leverage bots and automation to scan complex applications for vulnerabilities and exploit them—creating potentially disastrous outcomes, including data breach, account takeover (ATO), and fraud. Motivated and sophisticated attackers retool whenever they are blocked, going from web to mobile to APIs, or escalating tactics, techniques, and procedures such as using stolen tokens from the Dark Web, employing human CAPTCHA solvers, or using social engineering to trick users into sending MFA codes.

F5 solutions protect all digital channels to provide secure experiences for customers wherever they interact by connecting into any application architecture and protecting all critical business logic. F5 bot mitigation solutions maintain persistent, long-standing efficacy no matter how attackers retool in their efforts to evade detection. F5 solutions also reduce or remove the need for high-friction security controls, including CAPTCHA and MFA, thereby improving the customer experience and overall solution effectiveness.

F5 Distributed Cloud Bot Defense provides real-time monitoring and intelligence to protect organizations from automated attacks, including omnichannel protection for web applications, mobile applications, and API interfaces. Distributed Cloud Bot Defense uses real-time threat intelligence, retrospective analysis driven by AI, and continuous SOC monitoring to deliver bot mitigation with resilience that thwarts the most advanced cybercriminals and state actors. F5 domain experts and data scientists continuously research attacker tools, behavioral and environmental signals, and utilize advanced ML to rapidly detect attacker retooling and deploy updated models to mitigate attacks in real time.

To learn more about the business impact of bot traffic to your organization, use the F5 bot impact calculator to find out how much malicious bots are costing your organization in fraud, inventory manipulation, infrastructure expenses, employee burnout, and lost customers.