Cyber warfare: Battling bots

- Computer software designed to make life easier is now running amok—from politics to the music industry. Call it the battle of the bots. Like most things, bots aren't inherently bad. They've just garnered a lot of attention for all the wrong reasons, particularly over the past year. So what exactly are they?

Robert Hamilton, director of product marketing at Imperva, explains that a "bot" is a small programmer app that does what a human worker could do but faster and cheaper.

Bots are what allows Google to index the web. But they’re also what allows scalpers to snap up all the tickets to concerts.

But the 2016 presidential election really put bots in the spotlight. At a recent congressional inquiry into Russian interference in the 2016 election, Sen. Dianne Feinstein described the issue in stark terms: "The beginning of cyber warfare."

Facebook turned over 3,000 ads to Congress that originated in Russia. Many, like one operating under the name The Heart of Texas, sought to exploit anti-Hillary Clinton sentiment among those who identified themselves as "patriotic." It ran in May 2016. The ads were paid for by Russian sources.

Adam Levin, the chairman and founder of Cyberscout, says the ads seemed extremely realistic and very "on point" in terms of certain issues.

Twitter is the other active front in the war. A tweet showing comedian Aziz Ansari sought to mislead people into thinking they could vote via text message.

Social media expert Chris Dessi, of Performline Inc., says studies have shown a bot can make friends with a real person on social media upwards of 80 percent of the time. So what do we do? Dessi says vigilance remains the key. He says if you see something going viral, take it with a grain of salt.

There are some encouraging signs. Earlier this year Ticketmaster launched a "verified fan" program. Basically it tries to weed out the bots from real fans by making people register online two to three weeks before a show they want to buy tickets for. Taylor Swift, John Mayer, Ed Sheeran and U2 were among the mega-stars to hop on board with the program in an attempt to box out the bots.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg warned shareholders that the company would be embarking on a costly campaign to rid the site of fraudulent accounts.

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