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What is a Botnet?

Posted on May 10, 2011
Botnets are responsible for all sorts of nasty activity: sending thousands of spam emails, performing denial-of-service attacks to take down websites like Yahoo, scamming people's passwords, and more. Your computer could already be part of a botnet without you even knowing it.
Tags: botnet

Zombies and Robots, Oh My

What exactly is a botnet? Botnet is shorthand for robot network. A computer that is part of a botnet has had its security compromised, and is known as a "zombie." At some point a malicious program, or malware, got installed in the user's computer and allowed an external hacker access to and control of the computer.

Botnets are a severe, and increasing, Internet threat. They're also known as "bot armies," because networks of remotely-controlled computers are often used en masse to perform malicious attacks on websites and other nefarious activities.

How a Computer Becomes Part of a Botnet

It looks innocent enough. A Facebook link a friend posted on your wall. A free downloadable game. An email with a funny PowerPoint presentation attached. These are all ways your computer can become a botnet and if they look incredibly similar to ways your computer can get a virus, that's because they're the same. A computer becomes part of a botnet thanks to a malware program, and viruses, worms, and Trojans are spread in the same way.
One primary way a computer becomes part of a botnet is by getting a rootkit installed. A rootkit is a small program that makes itself at home in the deepest parts of your computer's operating system. Its sole purpose is to keep the other malware it came with installed on computer by not allowing you to delete it or the rootkit. The rootkit keeps access to your computer open for the outside hacker who manipulates your CPU and other processes in order to perform malicious acts.

What Botnets Do

Have you ever had a Facebook friend suddenly begin making strange posts, with long, suspicious-looking links? Or received a brief email from a friend with a generic message like, "OMG, look at these pics! Put some clothes on!" and a link to the supposed pictures to click?

It's pretty common to see a friend have one account or another hijacked like this. They were likely prey to a phishing scam, or had malware on their computer that revealed their login information, and their account was hijacked and/or became part of a botnet that spammed you and the rest of the people they knew.

Spam is a major goal of botnets. Your computer might be used to spam your Facebook, Myspace, LinkedIn, or Twitter friend list, or it could be used to send thousands of spam emails to people you don't even know, and without your knowledge. Botnet computers are used to send porn, phishing scams, "male enhancement," and other emails that clog inboxes. Botnets are also used to send and spread viruses and other malware.

Botnets are also used on a grander scale in coordinated attacks. They are used to perform Denial of Service (DoS) attacks on websites' servers, which makes the website go down. No one is immune to DoS attacks: even giants like Apple, Microsoft, Yahoo, and Google have been taken down by these attacks.

Could Your Computer Be a Robot-Controlled Zombie?

It can be hard to tell if your computer has been turned into a zombie. If it exhibits many of these signs, suspect botnet activity. In any case, you should run anti-malware software regularly.

Signs that your computer might be part of a botnet:

·    Runs sluggishly, slow to shut down, cannot update the operating system
·    Strange email activity: "undeliverable" emails, unusual send and receive activity in the email program, friends report receiving emails you did not send
·    Strange Facebook/LinkedIn/Twitter/Myspace activity, including seeing posts you didn't make yourself, or finding yourself unable to post at all
·    Ads appearing outside of a web browser

Botnets are a hidden and growing danger in our connected world. One wrong click and your computer could be turned into a zombie and forced to do the bidding of a far-off master, right under your nose. Be aware of the dangers, watch for unusual activity, and be sure to install and use reliable security software to keep your computer safe.

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