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Here is why it’s getting harder and harder to tell who is a human and who is a robot.

Almost everyone reading this article must have done a captcha test at some point. The phrase CAPTCHA stands for Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart and is used to determine whether a user is a human or a bot. 

Websites have had to use captcha tests to prevent block software from spamming comment sections on a website or buying items in bulk. The need for measures to block out bots continues to grow since, as of 2021, 64% of all activity on the internet was conducted by bots. Curious about what these bots do and why there is so much bot activity on the internet? Let’s find out!

What are bots?

Bots are software that has been programmed to mimic human behavior. They are usually used to automate tasks, such as customer service or indexing search engines. You must have come across some of these bots on the internet. One of the most common ones is chatbots. These are used to address user queries without the need to involve customer service executives (i.e. humans). Another common type of bot you may have come across is the shopping bot that helps users get the best deals on products by comparing the prices of the same item across many different online storefronts. 

But for every good bot out there helping businesses, there are bad ones that websites need to be protected against. Here are some of the top ones you should be wary of—

Social bots

These bots are used to carry out tasks such as inflating the views or likes on a post, spreading misinformation or influencing discussions on social media platforms. 

They gained more attention recently during the Johnny Depp vs. Amber Heard defamation trial when Heard claimed that a smear campaign was being run against her on the internet using bots. 

Click fraud bots

These are bots that are used to generate a large amount of traffic for paid advertisements. One of the most common advertising models is pay-per-click, where the advertiser has to pay a fee depending on how many people view the ad. Click fraud bots inflate this number of clicks without ever leading to an equivalent profit for the advertiser. This gained mainstream attention when, in 2021, Russian national Aleksandr Zhukov was found guilty of scamming ad networks by posting their advertisements on spoofed versions of websites, like the New York Times and the New York Daily News, and showing these ads to bots instead of real people. 

Distributed Denial-of-Service (DDoS) bots

These bots are used to flood websites with fake traffic, making them unavailable to legitimate users. One of the most famous examples of this is MyDoom. This computer virus sends spam emails to the email addresses collected from infected devices and then uses the infected computers to launch DDoS attacks. 

Why are bots running rampant?

They can be used for profit

The biggest reason why bots are overtaking human activity on the internet is that businesses are benefiting from bots. Bots can get websites inflated views and make them look more popular than they actually are. And so, some companies don’t want to investigate bot traffic to avoid affecting their website’s performance. Similarly, in the advertising space, digital advertising exchanges (that act as middlemen buying and selling ad space) don’t want to highlight the fact that they have fake websites and apps in their roster (as we explained in the case of Aleksandr Zhukov). That is because it gives them a high volume of traffic which in turn, makes the exchange more money. 

They are hard to track

Another reason for the rampant increase in bot activity is that it is becoming harder and harder to catch what is a bot and what isn’t. This is particularly true when it comes to social bots. Most bot detection algorithms use account behavior to track whether it is being run by a bot or a human. But these can be inefficient. So inefficient, in fact, that the most popular bot detection tool, Botometer, found Elon Musk’s Twitter account to be bot-like. It gave Musk’s account a rating of 4 out of 5 on how bot-like it behaved. Social media platforms also have a lot of cyborg bot accounts— which are controlled by humans sometimes and bots at other times. Since cyborg bot accounts switch between the two, they tend to slip through the cracks. 

So where does all of this lead us?

Well, it tells us that whether we like it or not, we will have to sift through bot-created content on the internet. Some conspiracy theorists have even noted that the world wide web died in 2016 or 2017 and has since largely been made up of content generated by AI, bots and a handful of influencers who are employed by giant corporations. 

As a real human on the internet writing this article, I do think this theory is quite far-fetched. But it is undeniably true that there are a lot of bots on the internet. Nearly 40% of bot traffic on the internet is made up of malicious bots, and they are becoming smarter and harder to catch over time. So, as much as we might hate wasting time on captcha tests, we are going to have to go through harder and harder ones to get recognized as “real” humans in the future. 

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Header image courtesy of Freepik