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Ticketmaster Blames Bots in Taylor Swift 'Eras' Tour Debacle

Ticketmaster testified in the Senate that a cyberattack was to blame for the high-profile Taylor Swift concert sales collapse, but some senators aren't so sure.

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Taylor Swift on stage accepting an award
Source: Doug Peters via Alamy Stock Photo

When armies of Taylor Swift fans in November were locked out of being able to purchase tickets for her upcoming The Eras tour, the so-called "Swifties" demanded answers.

And the Senate agreed.

This week, executives from Ticketmaster parent Live Nation testified in Senate Judiciary Committee hearings, arguing against criticism received from detractors that its market position reduces its accountability to fans, leading to it being unprepared for anticipated demand. Execs insisted that Ticketmaster's dominance of the live music market did not cause the Swift sales collapse — it was instead a cyberattack, executives said.

"There was unprecedented demand for Taylor Swift tickets," according to the company's opening testimony, shared ahead of the hearing with Dark Reading. "We knew bots would attack that on-sale, and planned accordingly."

However, the testimony went on to say that Ticketmaster received triple the amount of bot traffic that it had ever experienced, with bots both attempting to purchase tickets as well as breach the ticket sales servers for access codes.

"While the bots failed to penetrate our systems or acquire any tickets, the attack required us to slow down and even pause our sales," according to the company, which added that the difference in this instance is that instead of bots attempting to beat humans to the tickets, they were also attacking the system itself.

Some senators, including Marsha Blackburn, a Republican from Tennessee, didn't agree with Ticketmaster's assessment that the company was prepared in advance for the Taylor Swift swarm.

"This is unbelievable," Blackburn said during the hearing. She added, "Why is it that you have not developed an algorithm to sort out what is a bot and what is a consumer?"

"It is absolutely an ever-growing arms race in terms of fighting the bots," Live Nation CEO Joe Berchtold said in response to Senator Blackburn's questioning. "These are bots that are trying to impersonate people on an automated basis. They are faster and putting American consumers at a disadvantage."

He did not mention any anti-bot efforts that the company might have in place, nor any plans to improve what it does have in place.

In the opening testimony, Ticketmaster asked the Senate to consider stronger anti-bot legislation, enforcement, and penalties, but that does little to help shore up systems for future blockbuster tour event sales against an increasingly aggressive legion of shopper bots, a rival noted.

SeatGeek Had Similar, but Not as Serious, Swift Sales Problems

Although it was also bogged down under a similar traffic spike, Ticketmaster competitor SeatGeek was able to sell tickets to 52 Taylor Swift concerts without the same technical failures, the company explained to Politico, blaming Ticketmaster's troubles on its market monopoly.

"Ticketmaster’s outage, recovery time, and continued lack of a solution are the results of a monopoly’s complacency," SeatGeek said in a statement. "No competition means no incentive to innovate and iron out problems that they’ve experienced in the past."

When Bot Traffic Looks Like a DDoS Attack

Rather than a targeted, intentional distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack, Ticketmaster's outage was simply the result of the system getting crushed under a tidal wave of traffic. But the result was the same: disruption.

"Botnets are often used to launch DDoS attacks; they're also used to do other things such as attempting to quickly (and unfairly!) snap up tickets to popular events the moment they go on sale," Roland Dobbins, a DDoS expert and principal engineer with Netscout, explains to Dark Reading. 

He adds, "Even though the intent in the latter scenario isn’t to cause an outage — which defeats the purpose of the bot-driven purchases — high levels of aggressive, bot-driven, 'flash crowd' transactions can effectively constitute an unintentional application-layer DDoS attack against the online ticket vending system, if all the key elements in the system’s service delivery chain haven’t been designed with resilience, scale, and defense against application-layer DDoS attacks in mind."

Bot & DDoS Attack Defense Differ

Online retailers trying to protect against both bots and DDoS attacks need to adopt different approaches for each, Boaz Gelbord, senior vice president and chief security officer at Akamai, explains to Dark Reading in reaction to the Ticketmaster Senate testimony.

"Organizations face an increasing array of cyber-threats during 'hype events' such as flash sales or online commercial events," Gelbord says. "These can include both DDoS attacks aimed at bringing down the event and bots that aim to subvert the legitimate sales process. The goals of these attacks differ and they also require different protection."

DDoS protection is about putting up infrastructure and application defenses prior to an attack, while thwarting bots requires "a deeper understanding of the behavior to determine which traffic is legitimate and which is automated," Gelbord explains.

Battling the Bot Problem

Online brands experienced a 71% increase in bot attacks in 2022 over 2021, with bad bots making up nearly a third of online traffic, Michael Pezely, senior director of risk intelligence at Signifyd, points out in response to the Ticketmaster hearing.

"All these trends were reflected in Ticketmaster’s own experience with the Taylor Swift tour," Pezely adds. "While 3.5 million fans preregistered as verified fans, according to Ticketmaster, 3.5 billion purchase attempts were made."

Pezely urges online retailers to consider a holistic artificial intelligence (AI) approach to battling the bot problem.

"Fighting AI with AI will continue to be part of the solution. Merchants, whether they’re selling PlayStations, sneakers, or tickets, can counter the bots with learning machines that provide the intelligence to understand the identity and intent behind each order," Pezely explains. "That understanding allows merchants to turn to automation to block illegitimate orders."

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