In the world of the autonomous, people like to believe that nothing is impossible. Most of the time, this philosophy is a good thing. The ability to build systems that can alleviate human dependencies and provide quick and efficient solutions means that society as a whole can move faster, quicker, and more efficiently. However, sometimes the world moves so quickly and with such fervor to break barriers and innovate, that it seemingly disregards the bumps along the road. Whether or not it's a product of ignorance, the smaller problems that bubble underneath the clear, undisturbed image of any form of advancement are not revealed until it's too late.
Whether people want to look to the present day with the advent of new-age cryptocurrencies and their fun penchant for consumer fraud, or the very pandemic that destabilized the current economy, every major conflict has begun by distracting themselves with the obvious problems right in front of them with the sensationalization of something new and profitable. Accompanied by an unfathomable belief that they know what they are doing, it is no wonder that the root cause of these issues can be traced back to their inception.
When it comes to the technological bubble, the reality is that only a few people really know what’s going on and the true consequences of what’s being created. Bots and spam, which had been the bedrock of any piece of technology for decades, are part of that trend. A bump in the road for that matter is treated as unimportant. Unfortunately, we’re about to realize that’s not the case at all. Bots are not just a nuisance, and are far more dangerous weapons than we realize.
With automation at its peak, the infestation of bots and spam online has reached a potential point of no return. Soon the internet will begin to collapse in on itself and the line between real and fake will become impossible to differentiate. With the power to sway public opinion now so accessible to anyone with an agenda, the internet finds itself entering its own digital recession, a time of socio-political uncertainty where the world is truly at the mercy of the anonymous.
The Consequences of Widespread Automation and the Rise of Spam
Before someone can understand why bots and spam are so dangerous, they need to first understand how they work in the first place as well as their connection to modern-day automation. Automation is the use of technology applications to minimize human input. It’s the creation and application of technologies to complete tasks with reduced human interaction.
Bots in general can be used for good purposes, such as search engine bots which manifest themselves as web crawlers. These can review content on websites and index them so that they show up on web searches. Copyright bots also exist and review content that violates copyright laws. Site monitoring bots frequently monitor for website metrics and any potential issues such as system outages or backlinks. In other words, bots are surprisingly a cornerstone for a lot of modern-day processes that allow the internet to function the way that it does. The real issue arises when these bots are warped and become delivery systems for the most dangerous viruses on the internet. Delivery systems we refer to as spam.
The bots that can be programmed for malicious intent are referred to as “Bad Bots”. Think of it as someone who has been infected with a virus. Since bots make up over half of all web traffic, unprotected websites hosted by unqualified individuals on the internet can become a prolific target. These “bad bots” can also come in several forms. There are scraper bots that are programmed to steal content, such as pricing and product information so businesses can undermine the pricing strategies of a target. There are spam bots (which are the most common) that target community portals, and social media, and interfere with online conversations by inserting unwanted advertisements, links, banners, political agendas, etc. Finally, there are scalper bots that target ticketing websites to purchase hundreds of tickets as soon as bookings open to later resell the tickets at inflated prices.
All of these bots - good and bad - are possible because of the proliferation of AI technologies to the general public. If automation is possible and easy, then so are bots. If bots are real, then it becomes impossible to tell what isn’t. These bots more than anything affect perception online. Repeatedly sharing misinformation and fake news links, leaving bad reviews on websites, creating artificially inflated support for extreme views, and skewing poll data are only a few examples of what’s possible and already happening. When this reality exists, truth on the internet means nothing.
A good example of this is modern-day uses of ChatGPT. For context, ChatGPT is an open-source AI similar to Siri or Alexa, but far more advanced. If you go onto the platform and tell it to write you a fraudulent email that can be used to “phish” someone, it will create that for you. If you tell it to build a program for you that can spam hate comments on YouTube, it will create that for you. It will do all that in milliseconds without any moral qualms. AI is only a tool, but bots are the actual weapon.
Weaponizing the “Botnet” and its Underground Economy
Most of the misunderstanding behind these “bad bots” is that people think they are employed by groups of unrelated, and unconnected people. However, bots and spam are less random than we think and have transitioned into their own form of organized crime.
On most occasions, they are operated by movements of large groups who have some sort of intention to target people and distort the majority narrative online. These groups are often the homes of a “Botnet” which is a group of one or more interconnected devices that each run a bot that forms a system of bots that can
collaborate to perform DDoS attacks, post spam, etc. Surprisingly though, these botnets are not a new occurrence and have been around for years. The first instance of a botnet was a trojan called Sub7 that was released in 1999, just a few years after popular good bots started becoming relevant such as the Googlebot web crawler released in 1996. A more popular example is Trojan - a bad bot that disguises itself as legitimate software and instead is designed to damage your computer, steal data, disrupt your network, etc.
One of the most significant botnets in history however was called Pretty Park. It was an email worm that was also released in 1999 that would come attached to emails. When executed, it would install itself onto the system and then send email messages through the computer to the address book. It could also be used as a backdoor into the computer. For context, a worm is a type of malware whose primary function is to self-replicate and infect other computers while remaining active on infected systems. This particular worm paved the way for several major botnets that rose to prevalence in the mid-2000s such as Storm, which was one of the most aggressive pieces of malware known yet. It spread through links within messages that attempted to get users to download malware from a website. Storm has affected an estimate of over 1 million computers to date.
The prevalence of these “botnets” are evidence of the fact that they work more like an underground digital crime organization than pockets of random unconnected individuals and this makes them that much more dangerous.