To anyone reading the news about Ticketmaster and Taylor Swift or Twitter and Elon Musk, the problem of malicious bots seems insurmountable.
These automated programs can snap up concert tickets in the blink of an eye, or impersonate humans on social media, among countless other mischievous tasks. Bad bots are a huge problem, accounting for anywhere from a quarter to a half, or more, of global internet traffic, according to various estimates.
But they are not invincible.
This is the assessment of F5 CEO François Locoh-Donou. Seattle-based F5 is one of a growing number of tech companies offering solutions to detect, deter and defeat bots. Others include Akamai Technologies, Cloudflare, Google, PerimiterX, Imperva, Datacom, and more.
“You beat automation with better technology — bad automation by bad guys — and better technology does exist today,” he said.
Locoh-Donou joins us on this week’s GeekWire podcast to discuss it. He said he cares about the topic not just because F5 is in the business of fighting robots, but because they pose a threat to trust in the digital world.
“Bots have grown exponentially in popularity and sophistication over the past few years due to the availability of technology and the availability of talent to power them,” Locoh-Donou said.
“Many retailers, and certainly social media companies, haven’t really understood or grasped the motivations of the people who created these bots, the level of sophistication of these bots, and the way they distort the information we’re viewing,” he added. “So this That’s why bots have become such a big problem in the digital world. ”
Many companies treat fighting robots as a “DIY project,” hiring their own engineers to fix the problem, or leaving it to internal security teams, which Locoh-Donou says is a mistake.
To be sure, F5 has a vested interest in this view. Its security products and services include Distributed Cloud Bot Defense, the result of the company’s $1 billion acquisition of Shape Security three years ago.
However, there is a growing consensus in the tech industry that fighting robots does require specialized skills.
“Organizations are beginning to realize that firewalls, denial-of-service attack prevention, and network security features … are not enough to address the bot problem,” said financial services research and advisory firm Aite-Novarica Group in a September 2022 report. “A purpose-built bot management solution is a must to defend against nefarious operators with today’s sophisticated bots and rapid ‘sabotage tool’ bot detection.”
Aite-Novarica estimates that the market is “reaching critical mass,” with an overall estimated size of $860 million this year and a market expected to reach $1.2 billion by 2025.
Aite-Novarica placed F5’s bot detection and prevention technology in the “best-in-class” category in its report. An April 2022 report by Forrester Research classified F5 as a “contender” in the bot management market.
“Bad bots continue to drain resources and overwhelm organizations,” wrote the Forrester analysts. “Modern bot management tools must keep up with evolving attacks, provide a range of out-of-the-box and customizable reports, and enable human end customers to transact with little friction or frustration.”
It’s part of the emerging business of F5, a publicly traded Seattle-based enterprise technology company focused on areas such as application delivery and security, networking and multi-cloud management. F5’s security revenue hit $1 billion in its most recent fiscal year, accounting for 37% of total annual revenue.
Locoh-Donou said F5’s anti-bot technology analyzes thousands of signals, looking for patterns of clues that indicate the presence of bots on its sites and apps. It then uses artificial intelligence and machine learning for a second-stage analysis, looking at historical patterns and other data, in a technological arms race with attackers.
When Locoh-Donou reads stories like Ticketmaster’s bot problem, he says he feels sad and frustrated thinking of the thousands of legitimate fans — including his own children — who want to buy tickets fairly.
“When I see this, it frustrates me because it’s a distortion of the digital world. I know there’s a way around it,” he said. “Companies have a responsibility to take this issue, this bot epidemic, more seriously.”
So can Ticketmaster’s bot problem be solved with the right technology?
“Yes,” he said. “100%”