Bots Are an Existential Threat to Our Economy

December 13, 2018

In 1998, “Titanic” became the first movie to gross $1 billion, the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls won their sixth NBA championship, and President Bill Clinton was impeached but acquitted of wrongdoing in the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

It also was the year when bots – pieces of software that run automated tasks over the internet with minimal or no human intervention – first appeared online, providing services to users of the Internet Relay Chat messaging system.

Initially noticed by only a handful of computer geeks and, more recently, the esoteric preserve of cybersecurity experts, bots have now gone mainstream – and for all the wrong reasons. In their 20th anniversary year, bots are seen as responsible for influencing the results of the 2016 U.S. presidential election and causing crises at Facebook and Twitter.

However, while the world comes to grips with bad bots’ role in hijacking social media platforms and thwarting democracy, it’s easy to forget that these nefarious software scripts also are wreaking havoc on much broader swaths of the economy.

Whether for unauthorized data gathering, credit card fraud, click fraud or account takeovers, bots are a weapon of choice for hackers, fraudsters and nefarious competitors who routinely attack online retailers, financial institutions, airlines, ticket dealers, healthcare providers, gambling companies and others via their websites or mobile apps. In fact, social media bots represent just a sliver of the damage bots are doing around the world.

Consider that last year, 42 percent of all internet traffic wasn’t human – it was bots. Of that amount, 22 percent were bad bots. The remaining 20 percent were good bots that deliver useful services such as search engine indexing, stock trade execution, news updates and weather alerts.

Bad bot volume increased nearly 10 percent last year and there’s evidence they are becoming more sophisticated – for example, producing mouse movements and clicks that fool even advanced detection methods or using malware installed within browsers to connect to sites.

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