What Is a Botnet, and Is Your Computer Working for Hackers?

Malware on your computer isn’t dangerous only for you.

Dusan Vasic Image
Updated:

June 06,2022

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You've likely heard that there are some kinds of malware called botnet that can make a "zombie" out of your computer. While it may sound scary, it’s important to know about this threat to protect yourself from it. So, what is a botnet exactly, and what does it do?

Botnet Definition

A botnet is a network of private computers, smartphones, or any other internet-connected devices infected with malware that can control them as a group without the owners' knowledge, for nefarious purposes.

The term "botnet" comes from the word "robot" and "network." It refers to the way infected computers are controlled like robots. They are also compared to zombies as they mindlessly operate under the control of the bot herder that uses them to carry out large-scale cyberattacks.

Botnets can be massive, with some estimates suggesting tens of millions of computers in a single botnet. Botnet attacks are a severe threat to internet security and can cause significant economic damage if left unchecked.

How Do Botnets Work

Botnet infections are designed to self-replicate and help speed up how quickly a hacker can execute an attack that requires significant hardware resources. There is only so much a single hacker can do, even within a team. That's where botnets come into play.

With a botnet, a single attacker can have each networked device perform tasks like flooding a server with requests or stealing information. Botnets are perfect for launching attacks that would otherwise be too difficult or time-consuming for a single person.

Bot herders can also rent access to other malicious parties who want to use the botnet for their own purposes. This can be a lucrative business for those who have built up an extensive network of infected devices.

Types of Botnet Attacks

Botnets can be used for various purposes, all of them illegal. Here we discuss some of the most common and well-known use cases. 

DDoS Attacks

Distributed Denial-of-Service or DDoS attacks are a type of cyberattack where the attacker attempts to make an online service unavailable by overwhelming it with internet traffic from multiple sources. This can be done by infecting devices with malware that will trick them into joining the botnet and attacking the target server.

Botnet DDoS attacks can cause significant financial damage as they prevent businesses from being able to operate normally. They can also be used as a political tool to take down government websites or silence dissenters.

Stealing Financial Data

Stealing sensitive financial data, such as credit card numbers and online banking login credentials, is something that bot networks are efficient at. By targeting servers of financial institutions. The bot herder can then use the stolen information for their own purposes or sell it on the black market.

Brute Force Attacks

A brute force attack is a direct method where the attacker attempts to gain access to a computer system or account by trying every possible combination of characters until they find the correct one. A bot network attacks the target server until they crack the password for the targetted account, but this happens much faster than it would with a single device. The bot herder can then use the stolen information to access the system or account. 

Phishing Schemes and Email Spam

Phishing is a type of cyberattack where the attacker attempts to trick the victim into giving them their personal information, such as passwords or credit card numbers. Phishing scams cause many problems for the affected party, one of which is joining the ranks of future botnet spam attacks.

Botnets can be used to send out large quantities of spam emails to phish victims on a massive scale. The bot herder can also use the botnet to set up fake websites that look identical to the real website of the target company. When victims enter their login credentials on these fake websites, the bot herder can then steal the victim’s information or have them download malware, furthering the botnet infection.

Cryptojacking

Cryptojacking is a cyberattack where the attacker uses the computing resources of the victim's device to mine cryptocurrency. Hackers can do this by infecting them with malware that will turn them into bots that join the botnet and mine cryptocurrency for the bot herder.

Cryptocurrency mining requires a lot of computing power and electricity, which can be expensive. By cryptojacking victims, bot herders can save on these costs and make a profit.

How Botnets are Controlled

A critical part of maintaining a botnet is the ability to direct the infected network of computers towards a single goal. So, what is a botnet owner’s means of maintaining control over infected devices?

Different inputs are distributed across the network through a command-and-control (C&C) server remotely controlled by a bot herder. This computer acts as the central server, and bot computers receive directions in two ways:

Decentralized Method

With a decentralized method, bots receive instructions through a P2P (peer-to-peer) network. It’s enough for the bot herder to relay a command to a single bot machine for it to be distributed to the other computers in the network.

Centralized Method

A centralized server-client system distributes all commands by a single control server or several proxy servers. These are obsolete and centralized types of botnets, which are easier to track down and apprehend.

Most Common Malware with C&C Botnets

According to the Spamhaus Botnet Threat Update released for Q4-2021, the most commonly encountered malware were credential stealers RedLine and Loki. Both types of software directly target your accounts and passwords.

RedLine is especially dangerous if you are using browsers such as Chrome, Opera, Edge, or other Chromium-based options, and you are storing your passwords directly in them. This botnet malware targets login data information and has proven exceptionally versatile in extracting and decrypting such information. The best method of safeguarding your accounts is to use tried and tested password managers.

If you thought that bots and botnets only attack computers and not mobile devices, you haven’t had the opportunity to deal with malware like Loki. It’s another malicious piece of code that targets Android smartphones. In other words, you might have to deal with malware on Android, as botnets and accompanying malicious software can also target your mobile devices.

How to Protect Your Computer From a Botnet Attack

There are several reliable and proven methods for protecting your devices from botnets. Below, we will present some of the most common and most effective ones:

  • A firewall is a critical part of any security system, as it will block all incoming and outgoing traffic it deems malicious or unauthorized. This is an excellent way of protecting your devices from botnets, as it will block any attempts of attackers to remotely connect to your devices and infect them with malware.
  • Keeping your devices and software updated is essential. One of the most common ways botnets spread is through software and OS vulnerabilities. By keeping them up-to-date, you patch any known vulnerabilities and make it harder for attackers to infect your devices.
  • Anti-malware software is another excellent way of protecting your devices. By running regular scans, you can detect and remove any malware that may have been installed before damage is done.
FAQ
Is a botnet a virus?

A botnet is not a virus. However, a botnet computer or a network of computers controlled remotely by a hacker can be used to spread viruses and other malware.

Is creating a botnet illegal?

The process of infecting someone’s computer or smart device with malware to create a botnet is considered illegal. The activities that botnets are used for, such as DDoS attacks and spamming, are also unlawful.

What is a botnet, and how does it work?

A botnet is a network of infected machines that can be controlled by a hacker. The hacker can use the botnet to carry out activities such as DDoS attacks and spamming.

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