What Are Botnets and What Do They Do?
No doubt you’ve heard of botnets, but do you know exactly what they are and whether they’re something you even need to worry about? In this post, we’ll take a look at how botnets work and how they could potentially affect you...
Bots – the good, the bad, and the downright ugly
A bot (internet shorthand for "robot") is any type of application or script capable of performing automated tasks on command. Bots are specifically designed to perform repetitive tasks at a faster rate than human beings can manage.
As bots are essentially just programmed scripts, they can be deployed to do pretty much anything. And while they tend to get a pretty bad rep, there are actually loads of useful, well-intentioned bots out there.
For instance, chances are, you came across this article by googling “what is a botnet?” What you might not realize is that you found your way here with a little helping hand from the mighty Googlebot (otherwise known as a crawler bot).
There are plenty more good bots out there. Trader bots that crawl the web looking for deals on something you’re interested in buying online, data bots that feed you up-to-date information on the news and weather, like Siri. AI-assisted customer service chatbots running on reputable websites are just a few quick examples.
These benevolent bots make our jobs and lives easier, more enjoyable, and more productive.
There are more destructive kinds of bots – bot accounts on social media networks that are used for spam purposes, to propagate fake news, and influence national elections, for instance.
And there are the really bad guys, who live to create havoc by triggering scam campaigns designed to steal your personal and financial information, denial of service (DDoS) attacks to cripple websites and many more.
A botnet (a portmanteau of “robot” and “network”) is a collection of network-connected computers (or bots) that are remotely managed as one entity, either by an individual, small or larger cybercriminal group. Each device is infected with the same piece of malware and hijacked to do the grunt work involved in whatever clandestine scheme the cybercriminal commander has planned.
Botnets are created to conduct various malicious activities on a larger scale than they could manage otherwise, the details of which we’ll delve into a little later. Nefarious threat actors (a person or entity that is responsible for an event or incident that can impact the safety or security of another entity) have been aggressively developing ever more complex techniques to attack and take over your devices in the last few years.
PCs, Macs, smartphones – even your smart home devices, such as your thermostat or home security camera – can all be taken over and co-opted into a botnet. More often than not, this happens without your knowledge.
This means that if your device becomes one of many infected with a malware that’s attempting to raise a botnet army, you’ll be none the wiser.
The motivation behind creating a botnet is often purely financial. Once the cybercriminal has established a large network of infected devices – known as “zombie networks” – they can then sell access to these networks to other fraudsters looking to wreak havoc on businesses and regular people just like you.
Next, let’s dig a little deeper into exactly how you can be unknowingly conscripted into a botnet army...
How are botnets created?
Let’s say you open an email and download a file that looks safe but is actually a trojan virus. Or, you accidentally download a trojan through an infected mobile app.
Cybercriminals use these same trojan horses to breach your computer as well as others. They then take over your computer and organize all of the infected machines into a network of bots.
If you don’t have anti-malware software that alerts you to these kinds of threats, it’s surprisingly easy to fall victim to these trojans and unwittingly become part of a botnet.
Examples of botnet attacks
Botnets have been deployed to perform a whole slew of cyberattacks and illegal activities on the internet, including:
These are unleashed to inundate websites with enough heavy traffic to overwhelm and take them down. Some well-known examples of DDoS attacks include:
This is when a botnet is used to generate fake clicks and impressions on online ads to drive in a profit for the operators. Methbot is a particularly famous instance of a botnet used to game the automated ad-bidding market.
The very first botnets were designed to roll out phishing and spam attacks on a large scale. Today, botnets are still used to send large volumes of phishing scams in an effort to steal individuals’ personal information and defraud them.
One prolific example of this was the CutWail botnet. Emotet is another one that’s recently been making headlines.
Signs your device is infected with bot malware
While there are often no outward warning signs that your devices are part of a horde of zombie bots, you can experience the detrimental effects in other ways, including:
A much slower computer. Botnets are masters of draining your computer’s resources.
Whopper internet bills. If your bill is unusually large all of a sudden, a botnet (or some other form of malware) could be to blame. The stakes get even higher than this, though.
Botnets can negatively impact you in some really serious ways, including:
Stealing your personal information and/or hacking into your financial accounts. Just because you’re in a botnet doesn’t mean you get to sidestep being targeted by the bad guys. If anything, they already know just how vulnerable you are, and will have zero qualms about tapping your computer for whatever sensitive data they can use to sell and turn a profit. Cybercriminals are all about low-hanging fruit.
Can I remove botnet malware from my computer?
With the right malware detection software, you absolutely can. First, you’ll need to run a scan of your computer, which should be able to locate the offending piece of botnet malware and give it the old heave-ho for you – with no special techy know-how required on your part.
How to protect yourself from botnets
Don’t want to be a part of a botnet? Who does! While there is no way to magically protect yourself from botnet operators, you can increase your odds of avoiding being part of one by following the same common-sense strategies you should be taking to avoid all computer viruses, including these:
1. Don’t fall for phishing emails
We've covered how to avoid phishing scams previously on the blog, so we won't go into all of the details here.
2. Be careful what you download
Because botnets are so destructive, and it’s so difficult to detect whether you’re in one, it’s important to exercise caution when file sharing or downloading programs from unknown sites. And you may want to stick to apps available within your official app store.
In a nutshell, ensure anything you download from the internet is verified and from a legitimate source.
3. Don’t ignore updates
Always (we repeat, always) keep your operating system up to date. Botnets love nothing better than taking advantage of unpatched vulnerabilities – capitalizing on these is exactly how they canspread more easily from one device on a network to another.
Use anti-malware software that protects you against trojans
Getting cybersecurity software is the best way to avoid and eliminate botnets. We always recommend protecting each and every device you own with anti-malware protection (like Clario).
Want to stay informed on the latest digital threats? Check out our blog and learn how to protect your personal digital security.
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