Have you ever wondered where hackers get resources for mass campaigns? Some malicious online operations can require an army of computers to execute effectively. To launch these attacks, bad actors usually don’t wait for Black Friday computer sales and max out their credit cards on a shopping spree buying hundreds of computers. Instead, they often utilize botnets.
What is a botnet?
A botnet, a blend of "robot" and "network," is a network of computers infected by malware and under the control of a single attacking party known as the "bot-herder." Each infected machine, referred to as a bot, works in unison with others within the botnet. The bot herder orchestrates the interconnectedness of these compromised computers, utilizing them to carry out various cyber activities, such as executing automated scripts across the network. Bots are software applications designed to execute automated scripts across a network. Essentially, a botnet involves a network of compromised computers, under the command of a bot herder, working in unison to carry out various cyber activities.
Are botnets bad?
There is nothing inherently evil about a botnet. Botnets can perform many repetitive tasks. They can allow a bot herder to grow, automate, and speed up operations by accessing more resources from participants. For example, the crowdsourced scientific experiment, SETI@home, is a voluntary botnet in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI).
Unfortunately, the term botnet has negative connotations because bad actors often use the technology for malicious purposes. Malicious botnets develop through malware distribution. You can think of a malicious botnet like the Borgs from Star Trek.
Just like how the Borgs assimilate individuals into drones for the Collective, computers secretly infected by a botnet agent unwittingly become part of the botnet and report to the bot herder’s command and control servers. Here, the bot herder can use the botnet for some of the following operations:
Mass email spam campaigns
Spam botnets can send over a hundred billion spam messages per day. Some spam generated by botnets is merely a nuisance. However, more dangerous spam botnets can carry out phishing campaigns, distribute malware, spread more bots, and steal sensitive information. You can read about the Emotet botnet to learn more about spam campaigns.
Botnet DDoS attacks can utilize your computer’s resources to launch distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks. This type of attack involves sending excessive traffic to a website or service to overwhelm it. Depending on the nature and scale of an organization, a DDoS attack can be a minor annoyance to permanently damaging.
Fake Internet traffic generation
Ad fraud botnets can use your web browser to send traffic to online advertisements without your consent. The process defrauds marketers by generating fake traffic and earning revenue. Such botnets are hard to notice because they use very few resources.
Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) attacks
An RDP attack allows hackers to exploit network security flaws and drop malware like ransomware. Cybercriminals can use Botnets like GoldBrute to hack RDP servers. RDP attacks are so serious that even the FBI has issued a warning.
Internet of Things (IoT) Attacks
The Internet of Things (IoT) is the system of billions of Internet-connected devices that collect and share data without human intervention for user benefit. For example, a driverless truck that collects and transmits data through sensors is an IoT device. Botnets like the Mirai botnet scan the Internet for Internet of Things devices and infect them.
Additionally, a cybercriminal can use a bot to breach your security and privacy in several ways:
- Monitor your keystrokes
- Steal your login credentials
- Steal your intellectual property
- Steal financial data
- Take advantage of backdoors
Signs your computer could be part of a botnet
A botnet infection is dangerous because its symptoms aren’t always cut and dry. Botnet symptoms can result from another type of malware, hardware issues, or software updates. Download Malwarebytes free to scan your computer for malware, and review your security settings if you notice some of the following symptoms, just to be safe:
- Unexplained activity: You notice that your processor, hard drive, or computer fans are running excessively and without cause.
- Slow Internet: Your Internet is slower than usual. You notice that your router is working furiously, but you’re not downloading or uploading anything, nor are you updating software.
- Slow reboots and shutdowns: Malicious software can cause a computer to shut down slowly. For example, if your computer is actively participating in a botnet, it may take time to shut down.
- Applications are crashing: Programs that loaded and ran seamlessly before are buggy now.
- Excessive RAM usage: Botnets can consume memory. Check to see if a mysterious application is using a large percentage of your RAM.
- Mysterious emails: People on your contact list complain that you sent them SPAM or malicious emails.
- Unsafe habits: You haven’t downloaded critical security patches for your operating system, or you opened malicious links, downloaded unsafe software, or went to an unsafe website.
An example of a botnet attack is the Mirai botnet attack in 2016. It infected numerous Internet of Things (IoT) devices, such as routers and security cameras, by exploiting weak default passwords. The compromised devices were then used to launch a massive distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack on targeted websites, causing them to become overwhelmed with traffic and inaccessible to legitimate users.
Operating a botnet is highly illegal. Botnets are networks of compromised computers or devices that are under the control of a malicious actor, often without the knowledge or consent of the owners. These botnets are used to carry out various cybercrimes, such as distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks, spreading malware, stealing sensitive information, and engaging in fraudulent activities.
Using a botnet to execute malicious activities violates laws related to unauthorized access, computer intrusion, data breaches, identity theft, and cybercrime in many jurisdictions around the world. Law enforcement agencies actively investigate and prosecute individuals involved in botnet operations, as it poses a significant threat to the security and stability of computer networks and the internet as a whole.
A Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attack and a botnet are related but distinct concepts. A DDoS attack is a malicious attempt to overwhelm a network, service, or website with excessive traffic, causing it to become inaccessible. A botnet, on the other hand, is a network of compromised computers or devices controlled by a malicious operator. The botnet can be used to carry out various cyberattacks, including DDoS attacks. In essence, a DDoS attack is a specific type of cyberattack, while a botnet is a collection of compromised devices that can be utilized to execute different types of cyberattacks, including DDoS attacks.