Bots are broadening the digital divide

Skull and crossbones representation of digital Bots - can lead to cybersecurity risk
(Image credit: Gonin / Shutterstock)

From Joe Biden pledging to “close the digital divide”, to the UK almost halving the number of homes without internet access in 2020, governments worldwide are convinced that access to online services is essential for a fairer, more productive society and economy. But this isn’t the whole story.

About the author

Chris Waynforth is Area Vice President at Imperva.

Just being online doesn’t guarantee everyone the same access to products and services. People with the right technical knowledge are better positioned to buy products and access services, and bots are a growing reason for it.

A bot-driven economy widens the gap between the “haves” and “have nots”

Most are aware of the concept of bots – automated software that performs repetitive tasks on the internet -- whether it’s providing website help functions, automated customer service or scraping data for search engines. However, there is an increasing number of “bad” bots trafficking the internet – those that are harder to stop and closely mimic human behavior. They’re programmed to harvest personal information for fraud, perform account takeover or take down websites.

Historically, scalping bots were used to hoard concert or sporting tickets – a trend that ultimately forced changes in legislation around ticket resale. Over the past year, bots have infiltrated more industries and are causing havoc in daily life. Throughout the global pandemic, bots snatched up gaming consoles and graphics cards, making it harder for everyday consumers to find popular items for purchase online. More recently, there is evidence that bots are being used to track COVID-19 vaccination availability – a “helpful” service for many, but still a concern for organizations that are the origin of the data and see their sites being slowed down or taken offline by increased levels of automated traffic.

For those with the knowledge or resources to use a bot operator, there are significant advantages: they can jump the queue to acquire popular new products, secure a reservation and more. Before you know it, bots could be booking reservations to the beer garden or placing a Tesco order.

All of this activity will ultimately further split the internet into “haves” and “have-nots”. Those without the knowledge to run their own botnet or employ bot operators -- such as over-65s, low-income families, or those the UK regulator Ofcom terms “financially vulnerable” -- will find themselves at a disadvantage in the growing bot-driven economy.

With more digital services emerging, the rise of bots will impact consumers’ access to goods in ways we cannot yet imagine. But, it doesn’t stop there; bots may have much deeper, and wider, impact on how we all use the internet.

Bots: the internet’s disruptive, invisible force

Recent data leaks from Facebook and LinkedIn demonstrate the way bots can propagate potentially fraudulent activity. Designed to trawl data en masse, bots can easily scrape a wealth of publicly available data on all of us and then post it on the Dark Web; building a detailed picture of individuals. Left unchecked, trust in the internet will suffer as users realize every single piece of information and data about them that’s circulating the internet, however innocuous, can be weaponized against them.

Even “good” bots have a profound effect on how the internet operates. Since bots don’t behave like humans, what happens to websites when those visitors aren’t human? It could dynamically change how websites are designed and make it harder for legitimate users to access web-based services.

The result will be a fundamental change in how we use the internet. Rather than browsing sites to buy products or book holidays, internet users will use a bot operator to execute common tasks based on set preferences. Again, users willing or able to pay for bot operators will have the advantage.

Short-circuiting the rise of bots

Assuming people don’t accept this vision of a bot-led internet, what can be done? To start, organizations must prioritize the security of all data – no matter where it is stored. With more than 30% of all login attempts originating from malicious bots last year, organizations must view the threat of bots as a business risk and threat to customers’ privacy and data security.

There are also some regulatory steps that governments can take but enforcing bot-related laws is complicated. In some nations, like the UK, legislators are pushing to ban sales from scalping bots. However, will this curb the resale issue happening in every industry? The internet is borderless; any country-specific law will be difficult to enforce if the bot operator is based in a different jurisdiction.

What’s important to recognize is that bot operators are paying their mortgages with the revenue they’re generating through inventory hoarding and resale. Thus, the bot problem is unlikely to stop altogether, and will become an even greater challenge for consumers in the coming years.

With a number of factors influencing the digital divide in the UK and around the world, bots hardly seem like an influential force. However, as evidenced by the hoarding of new gaming consoles last year, bot operators can cleverly use technology to gain the upper hand and to take control of a market. This in turn impacts everyone. It limits the supply of goods, increases prices and creates frustration and panic.

To slow the bot problem, organizations must take the leadership role by limiting and managing bot traffic on their sites so only legitimate users are allowed to access it. This is the only way to balance the playing field. Bot mitigation technologies do exist, from the now-familiar CAPTCHA and simple rate limiting to more sophisticated identification tools that detect and mitigate suspicious bot activity. By reducing the excessive influence bots have, all consumers will be able to get equitable access to the information, services and goods they need.

Chris Waynforth

Chris Waynforth, Area Vice President at Imperva.