The MST Reader: Botnets
The MST Reader is a series of overviews of interesting and timely topics that affect our world.
The MST Reader: Botnets
The Internet is dark and full of terrors: viruses and trolls, Trojan horses and identity thieves. Then, there is the botnet.
While some malware might steal the data on your computer, or encrypt it and ransom it back to you, or just serve you up infinite pop-up ads, you might not even know it if your computer becomes part of a botnet.
A botnet is a collection of interconnected computers working together, and while that can be a good thing in the right hands, the kind of botnet we’re talking about is one created without the permission of the users and designed to make trouble.
By tying together hundreds or thousands of computers to coordinate on a task, a botnet harnesses both processing power and bandwidth. It’s also harder to stop, since the software is replicated across many machines — stopping one infected computer won’t stop the whole network. And by running the software quietly, without the computer owner’s knowledge, the botnet is able to continue operating for longer.
Malicious botnet software can come from many places: maybe a user clicks a bad link in an email, or maybe the botnet software is bundled with a more-legitimate looking program which is deliberately downloaded, or maybe the user visits an infected website. Once the computer is infected, it becomes part of a much larger network controlled by someone remotely, who uses the network to vastly magnify their reach and abilities online.
Botnets can be used to bring down websites or services using DDoS attacks (Distributed Denial of Service), in which a server is overwhelmed by meaningless connections instituted by large numbers of computers. They can be used to send out spam emails in large numbers, whether for a scamming, or to spread misinformation, or just in an effort to expand the botnet by spreading more malware. They can be used to make bogus, misleading posts on social media sites in an effort to shift public opinion, confuse a discussion, or just to promote a product or influence search results.
The uses for a botnet are as varied as what a computer can do online, up to and including manipulating public opinion prior to an election.
If that seems abstract, it’s not: bots account for an enormous amount of web activity, with some estimates placing malicious bots at 20% of online traffic.
And, botnets-for-hire can be bought or rented on the dark web by just about anyone.
So, think twice before clicking that email link.
What is a botnet?