‘Star Wars’ Botnet: Researchers Discover 350,000 Twitter Bots

Earlier this week, Twitter’s CEO apologized after the social network forced users to follow Donald Trump’s (@POTUS) Twitter account. A new study found a hidden network of “Star Wars” bots on Twitter.

Researchers from the Department of Computer Science, at the University College London, revealed a secret bot network with over 350,000 Twitter bots.

The study reported the creator of the bots controlled thousands of bots. “Here we report our discovery of the Star Wars botnet with more than 350k bots. We show these bots were generated and centrally controlled by a botmaster,” Juan Echeverria and Shi Zhou, the lead researchers in the study explained.

Researchers explain a large percentage of Twitter users are actually bots. These bots have the ability to “spam, manipulate public opinion” and even alter research data uses Twitter’s API. In fact, one of the biggest problems with using Twitter as a data source is the fact it can be easily skewed by bots, Echeverria and Zhou reported in their study.

University College London scientists explain bots have the ability to manipulate people. For example, a large groups of bots, can spam, create fake trending topics, alter public opinions, and contaminate Twitter’s API.

Echeverria and Zhou explained the discovered “Star Wars” bots had key characteristics. One of the key features included tweeting random quotations from “Star Wars” books.

“Each tweet contains only one quotation, often with incomplete sentences or broken words at the beginning or at the end,” the researchers reported.

University College of London researchers argue, the ability to tweet quotations helped the bots to go unnoticed. Echeverria and Zhou explained by using quotes, the bots were able to communicate in the same way as a typical Twitter user. The Star Wars bots never included URLs within their tweets. Nor did they mention other users, or reply to anyone else. Ultimately, bots avoided detection by using these key features.

A large majority of the “Star Wars” Twitter bots never retweet or mention any other Twitter users. After registering, Twitter bots immediately started tweeting. The “Star Wars” Twitter bots tweeted up to 150,000 times per day. On July 14, 2013 all of the bots immediately stopped tweeting. Zhou and Echeverria argue this demonstrates someone controlled the large network of bots.

What does the ‘Star Wars’ botnet mean for cybersecurity?

Zhou and Echeverria’s study illustrates how people can manipulate and hide within the social network. Botnets can possibly control public opinion by affecting trending topics. Not to mention, the botnets are being sold on the black market as fake followers. Zhou and Echeverria explain this research should alert cybersecurity experts about the vulnerabilities within Twitter’s social network.

Researchers also revealed their research has led to another discovery; Zhou and Echeverria recently discovered over 500,000 bot network.

This is not the first time bots made headlines. Hackers used bots and stole $3,000,000 per day from video advertising companies by using bot farms. According to analysts, hackers used bots to watch as many as 300 million video ads per day on fake websites designed to look like a premium websites. This resulted in the biggest fraud operation against digital advertising in history.