What is a Botnet?


A botnet refers to a group of computers which have been infected by malware and have come under the control of a malicious actor. The term botnet is a portmanteau from the words robot and network and each infected device is called a bot. Botnets can be designed to accomplish illegal or malicious tasks including sending spam, stealing data, ransomware, fraudulently clicking on ads or distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks.

While some malware, such as ransomware, will have a direct impact on the owner of the device, DDoS botnet malware can have different levels of visibility; some malware is designed to take total control of a device, while other malware runs silently as a background process while waiting silently for instructions from the attacker or “bot herder.”

Self-propagating botnets recruit additional bots through a variety of different channels. Pathways for infection include the exploitation of website vulnerabilities, Trojan horse malware, and cracking weak authentication to gain remote access. Once access has been obtained, all of these methods for infection result in the installation of malware on the target device, allowing remote control by the operator of the botnet. Once a device is infected, it may attempt to self propagate the botnet malware by recruiting other hardware devices in the surrounding network.

While it's infeasible to pinpoint the exact numbers of bots in a particular botnet, estimations for total number of bots in a sophisticated botnet have ranged in size from a few thousand to greater than a million.

Why are botnets created?

Reasons for using a botnet ranges from activism to state-sponsored disruption, with many attacks being carried out simply for profit. Hiring botnet services online is relatively inexpensive, especially in relationship to the amount of damage they can cause. The barrier to creating a botnet is also low enough to make it a lucrative business for some software developers, especially in geographic locations where regulation and law enforcement are limited. This combination has lead to a proliferation of online services offering attack-for-hire.

How is a botnet controlled?

A core characteristic of a botnet is the ability to receive updated instructions from the bot herder. The ability to communicate with each bot in the network allows the attacker to alternate attack vectors, change the targeted IP address, terminate an attack, and other customized actions. Botnet designs vary, but the control structures can be broken down into two general categories:

The client/server botnet model

The client/server model mimics mimics the traditional remote workstation workflow where each individual machine connects to a centralized server (or a small number of centralized servers) in order to access information. In this model each bot will connect to a command-and-control center (CnC) resource like a web domain or an IRC channel in order to receive instructions. By using these centralized repositories to serve up new commands for the botnet, an attacker simply needs to modify the source material that each botnet consumes from a command center in order to update instructions to the infected machines. The centralized server in control of the botnet may be a device owned and operated by the attacker, or it may be an infected device.

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