Automated Antagonists: The Quest for Better Bot Management

March 5, 2024 | by Jeff Harrell

Better Bot Management

Bots are a part of life on the internet for today’s businesses. In some ways, the internet has made it easier for criminals to steal information or commit fraud – bots are used to automate attacks that would typically be performed manually in the real world. For example, while it’s trivial for a bot to test a large amount of credentials against a poorly secured API, that type of attack would be difficult or impossible in person – imagine a criminal standing there with a stack of fake driver’s licenses – “Does this one work? No? How about this one?” The good news is, just as bot attacks can be automated, we can automate much of the bot management as well.

Good Bots vs. Bad Bots

When you hear the word “bot,” you may think only of malicious automated code built to attack web applications and APIs, but there are good bots as well, such as search bots that help people find things through search engines. When you’re securing your business, you need to be able to distinguish between the two because their traffic may look similar at first glance, but bad bots can be very bad. Here’s a partial list of some of the consequences of bad bots:

  • Account takeovers (ATO)
  • Fake account creation
  • Distributed denial of service (DDoS)
  • IP theft
  • Financial fraud
  • Gift card or loyalty program abuse
  • Huge traffic spikes driving increased resource use and associated cloud costs

All of these consequences are potentially serious if not caught early and prevented.

Traditional Bot Management Techniques No Longer Work

Bot attacks have evolved over the years to evade defenses. In many cases, the defenses that worked previously haven’t kept up with the times. Most organizations have existing security tools that used to help against bots, like web application firewalls (WAFs). WAFs are still a useful tool for protecting web applications, but attackers now often bypass the web application and target mobile clients or back-end APIs directly. Additionally, WAF attack prevention is mainly focused around blocking specific IPs, which attackers easily bypass by distributing attacks across a seemingly endless supply of different IP addresses, available cheaply through bulletproof proxy vendors.

Other bot mitigation solutions utilized app instrumentation through JavaScript integrated into the web application, but this has several drawbacks, most especially the integration itself. That is engineering work that must be done, tested, and pushed to production, and those hurdles alone lead JavaScript-based solutions to be relegated to shelfware in many organizations. In addition, attackers can simply target the APIs or the mobile apps (which do not support JavaScript) directly, as with the WAF solution, bypassing the apps with JavaScript-based defenses. Another important disadvantage that isn’t immediately obvious is that integrating a vendor’s JavaScript can telegraph the defense – if attackers can see the JavaScript, it gives them an idea of what protective measures are in place and therefore how to avoid them.

A different perspective on why traditional bot management techniques no longer work is how much the scale has changed. For example, retailers used to be primarily brick and mortar locations with an online presence. Now, not only are almost all retailers online-first, but entire classes of businesses are online ONLY. The priority and the volume of online traffic, transactions – and therefore attacks – have skyrocketed. Traditional bot management solutions were just not designed to handle the scale.

Successful Bot Management Requirements

To be successful against today’s evolved attackers and their bot armies, organizations need a solution that meets the following four criteria:

  • Easy to deploy – The solution needs to deploy in a manner consistent with the organization’s existing infrastructure (e.g. SaaS, on-premises, or hybrid) and it needs to be deployable in a reasonable amount of time without requiring re-engineering effort on existing applications.
  • Comprehensive – It must protect ALL web application traffic, including mobile apps and direct API traffic. Solutions that have per-app integrations or only focus on offending IPs will necessarily miss things – organizations need a solution that takes the guesswork out of app protection.
  • Effective – This seems like a no-brainer, but this is where the rubber meets the road. The solution should block natively, and to do that it absolutely must detect attacks accurately.
  • Resilient – As we outlined earlier, attackers continue to evolve their techniques, and organizations need a solution that can evolve with them to identify and block new, novel attacks. This ability to identify attacks and track them through layers of deception is the secret sauce that means the investment you make in a preventative solution today will still be effective in the future.

As the internet has evolved and become the focus of where many organizations do business, naturally so have attacks. Finding the right solution is imperative, but a methodical consideration of the available options based on the requirements above will provide a strong foundation. If you’d like to give Cequence a try, we have a free API security assessment available for a very low friction way to get started.

Jeff Harrell


Jeff Harrell

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