Day in the Life of a Bot

A typical workday for a bot, from its own point of view.

Steve Winterfeld, Advisory CISO at Akamai

February 10, 2020

5 Min Read

Back to the grind — time to review what needs to get done today. As a botnet, I have a very interesting job in some ways, but in others, it feels like the movie Groundhog Day. I originally was built by a criminal organization to conduct distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks and then demand "protection" money to make sure it didn't happen again. Not a very innovative business model, but why fix what isn't broken?!   

I'm fortunate in that my owners have kept my code on the cutting edge, so I can be used for newer attacks like credential stuffing, brute-force password cracking, cryptomining, and even as a ticket bot to scoop up the best seats for resale. Some of my friends work as aggregators, spam bots, web scrapers, or search engines, and while we all do similar functions, I'm doing the truly exciting stuff. 

Over time, both the systems I'm made of and the types of criminal business models I'm used for have changed. Today, some of my network of hacked computers are part of the Internet of Things, such as home video surveillance cameras. As long as they have good computing power and connectivity, I'm an equal opportunity employer. 

Before I get too deep into what I must get done today, I want to address the big picture. While my organization is outstanding at what it does, I think of myself as part of a larger ecosystem. Other organizations pay me for my stolen information, such as access to someone's bank account. They also pay me for my ability to cause an impact, such as conducting a DDoS attack on a company's main web page. That is one thing I do like about the Dark Web — it's in a state of constant innovation around repurposing malware and business models.

Enough big picture: Let's talk about the fun part of my day — attacking stuff! Generally, the process I follow is the same as a military unit attacking an objective. I start with reconnaissance, then execute the attack to gain access. Next comes capturing the objective, or in cyber terminology, exploitation. This consists of stealing data to sell it.  

Let's cover what I do by looking at a sample task, like credential stuffing. To start with, I require actionable intelligence, or information, so I must make sure my reconnaissance results in the discovery of a vulnerable part of the network. This means I have to determine what kind of defenses exist so I can tailor my attack to bypass them. How well my day goes really does depend on what the company I'm targeting has done to improve its security posture. 

If it has a web application firewall (WAF) with fraud and bot mitigation capabilities, it's a real headache. If it blocks the country my bots are coming from (called a geolocation block), I need to change source of attack to an unblocked location. If it blocks based on the rate and volume of my attempts, then I must slow down the attack to stay under the radar. If it uses CAPTCHA or browser validation, then I must use more advanced techniques to defeat its defenses. Some companies are even looking at the network logs to determine if there is really a person on the other end of the connection, by looking at behavior. But for each defense, my research team comes up with a counter. 

After I establish how to gain access to the right login sites for the victim, I also need to have access to the latest ammunition for my attacks — be that updated malware, new social engineering techniques for phishing emails, or set of compromised user names and passwords (often called credentials). For today, I'm going after accessing accounts to take them over, which means I need lots of credentials. This technique is called credential stuffing and is used to get access to customers accounts. If someone uses the same user credentials for multiple online accounts, then when one account is compromised the cybercriminals can use these credentials to gain access to all their other accounts. To make this scale, I have automated the process to try multiple compromised credentials against the company, hoping some of them have been reused. It works about 1% to 2% of the time, but if I have a million sets of credentials I'm looking at, that's a good return on investment.

Once I get access to an account, I need to make sure I can sell it. I will often change the contact info so if the company detects an issue, it'll reach out to me to confirm that everything is OK. Next, I will offer the account for sale to someone who can either transfer money through something as simple as buying gift cards or buying products that are shipped to members of the buyer's money-laundering operations (called mules).

There are a number of variations to how the process works, depending on if someone on the Dark Web contracts for my services. So, that's a typical day in my life. What I wish I could do is become part of a university research network. Those guys have it made — weekends off and meaningful work. That said, I do get to interact with a lot of interesting sites!

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About the Author(s)

Steve Winterfeld

Advisory CISO at Akamai

Steve Winterfeld is the Advisory CISO at Akamai. Steve is focused on being the voice of the customer for Akamai's security vision and helping CISOs solve their most pressing issues. He brings experience with Zero Trust Security Architectures, and integrating multiple tools into effective programs that will stand up to both auditors and hackers. Before joining Akamai, he served as CISO for Nordstrom bank, Director of Cybersecurity for Nordstrom, and Director of Incident Response and Threat Intelligence at Charles Schwab. Additionally, he has supported multiple DoD and government agencies while at Northrop Grumman. Steve has published a book on cyber warfare and holds CISSP, ITIL, and PMP certifications.

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