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Malicious and devious uses of web robots

Monday, July 6, 2015

There are welding robots, swimming robots, flying robots, dancing robots and yes lying ones too. It is the truth! Robots are used for repetitive and or dangerous tasks. So, for instance, in manufacturing plants, one can find robots doing the spot welding on automobile frames, assembling circuit boards and retrieving products from automated warehouses. 

The detection and disposal of bombs by robots are looked upon favourably by law enforcement agencies. The use of drones in warfare is well established and soon there will be drones delivering packages to customers. The use of robots in entertainment is experiencing quite significant growth. In fact, humanoid and similar robots are on the way to becoming common place, in in not only factories and wars, but also in the commercial and residential sectors. 

Generally, such robots are electromechanical devices. But there is another type of robot that is even more common place and with which any and everybody with access to a smart phone and computer interacts. These are web robots. A web robot or Internet bot is a software application that runs automated procedures and tasks over the Internet. 

These tasks are normally simple but need to be done continuously and quickly. An example is the answering of questions posed to search engines. These are called chatterbots for they give responses to questions posed in simple English. So if you wanted to find out what are the opening hours of a bank on, say, Fridays, you can ask the question using voice or text facilities on your smart phone or computer. 

This is a very popular and useful application of chatterbots. These types of applications are possible as the robots or agents are automated scripts and they fetch and analyse information from web servers a lot quicker than humans can. They are also used for filing information to allow for fast retrieval. 

This set of processes is called spidering and it is an integral and indispensable part of the world of knowledge engineering and analytics. Online App-stores like Apple App and Google Play and auction websites like eBay use an automated trading function or web robots in their operations. Unfortunately, however, web robots can also be used for less than noble or constructive purposes. Spam bots are used, as the name suggests, to harvest email addresses from contact or guest book email pages and then send out not so harmless emails. 

Many a reader must have been the recipient of a fake email from one of their contacts, whose account was hacked, requesting money as it is claimed that they had lost all documents and resources while abroad. This is but one of the many spam based emails scams that seek to fleece the unsuspecting naïve.

The use of bots to buy up seats offered online, for sporting and entertainment events has been detected. Of course, the general public, denied online purchases by these devious bots, are then sold the tickets at black market rates. Another unscrupulous application is the design and use of bots to artificially increase the number of views to YouTube videos. 

This is a way of boosting the popularity of the video as the more a video is watched, the more it is likely to be watched. A similar application has been used to increase traffic counts to online reviews and sites. This data is or can be used to give inflated or false figures for the purposes of increasing advertising revenue. 

The evidence points to the immoral and often illegal use of web robots for the purposes of profit. This is an area that needs more scrutiny and regulation as our transactions become more e-based. Online voting is used for competitions and events that carry big prize money. One wonders if the requisite measures are put in place to prevent web robots inflating the vote count.


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