Posts Tagged: Twitter bots


14
Aug 13

Buying Battles in the War on Twitter Spam

The success of social networking community Twitter has given rise to an entire shadow economy that peddles dummy Twitter accounts by the thousands, primarily to spammers, scammers and malware purveyors. But new research on identifying bogus accounts has helped Twitter to drastically deplete the stockpile of existing accounts for sale, and holds the promise of driving up costs for both vendors of these shady services and their customers.

Image: Twitterbot.info

Image: Twitterbot.info

Twitter prohibits the sale and auto-creation of accounts, and the company routinely suspends accounts created in violation of that policy. But according to researchers from George Mason University, the International Computer Science Institute and the University of California, Berkeley, Twitter traditionally has done so only after these fraudulent accounts have been used to spam and attack legitimate Twitter users.

Seeking more reliable methods of detecting auto-created accounts before they can be used for abuse, the researchers approached Twitter last year for the company’s blessing to purchase credentials from a variety of Twitter account merchants. Permission granted, the researchers spent more than $5,000 over ten months buying accounts from at least 27 different underground sellers.

In a report to be presented at the USENIX security conference in Washington, D.C. today, the research team details its experience in purchasing more than 121,000 fraudulent Twitter accounts of varying age and quality, at prices ranging from $10 to $200 per one thousand accounts.

The research team quickly discovered that nearly all fraudulent Twitter account merchants employ a range of countermeasures to evade the technical hurdles that Twitter erects to stymie the automated creation of new accounts.

“Our findings show that merchants thoroughly understand Twitter’s existing defenses against automated registration, and as a result can generate thousands of accounts with little disruption in availability or instability in pricing,” the paper reads. “We determine that merchants can provide thousands of accounts within 24 hours at a price of $0.02 – $0.10 per account.”

SPENDING MONEY TO MAKE MONEY

For example, to fulfill orders for fraudulent Twitter accounts, merchants typically pay third-party services to help solve those squiggly-letter CAPTCHA challenges. I’ve written here and here about these virtual sweatshops, which rely on low-paid workers in China, India and Eastern Europe who earn pennies per hour deciphering the puzzles.

topemailThe Twitter account sellers also must verify new accounts with unique email addresses, and they tend to rely on services that sell cheap, auto-created inboxes at HotmailYahoo and Mail.ru, the researchers found. “The failure of email confirmation as a barrier directly stems from pervasive account abuse tied to web mail providers,” the team wrote. “60 percent of the accounts were created with Hotmail, followed by yahoo.com and mail.ru.”

Bulk-created accounts at these Webmail providers are among the cheapest of the free email providers, probably because they lack additional account creation verification mechanisms required by competitors like Google, which relies on phone verification. Compare the prices at this bulk email merchant: 1,000 Yahoo accounts can be had for $10 (1 cent per account), and the same number Hotmail accounts go for $12. In contrast, it costs $200 to buy 1,000 Gmail accounts.

topcountriesFinally, the researchers discovered that Twitter account merchants very often spread their new account registrations across thousands of Internet addresses to avoid Twitter’s IP address blacklisting and throttling. They concluded that some of the larger account sellers have access to large botnets of hacked PCs that can be used as proxies during the registration process.

“Our analysis leads us to believe that account merchants either own or rent access to thousands of compromised hosts to evade IP defenses,” the researchers wrote.

Damon McCoy, an assistant professor of computer science at GMU and one of the authors of the study, said the top sources of the proxy IP addresses were computers in developing countries like India, Ukraine, Thailand, Mexico and Vietnam.  “These are countries where the price to buy installs [installations of malware that turns PCs into bots] is relatively low,” McCoy said.

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20
Mar 12

Twitter Bots Target Tibetan Protests

Twitter bots — zombie accounts that auto-follow and send junk tweets hawking questionable wares and services — can be an annoyance to anyone who has even a modest number of followers. But increasingly, Twitter bots are being used as a tool to suppress political dissent, as evidenced by an ongoing flood of meaningless tweets directed at hashtags popular for tracking Tibetan protesters who are taking a stand against Chinese rule.

It’s not clear how long ago the bogus tweet campaigns began, but Tibetan sympathizers say they recently noticed that several Twitter hashtags related to the conflict — including #tibet and #freetibet — are now so constantly inundated with junk tweets from apparently automated Twitter accounts that the hashtags have ceased to become a useful way to track the conflict.

The discovery comes amid growing international concern over the practice of self-immolation as a means of protest in Tibet. According to the Associated Press, about 30 Tibetans have set themselves on fire since last year to protest suppression of their Buddhist culture and to call for the return of the Dalai Lama — their spiritual leader who fled during a failed 1959 uprising against Chinese rule.

I first heard about this trend from reader Erika Rand, who is co-producing a feature-length documentary about Tibet called State of Control. Rand said she noticed the tweet flood and Googled the phenomenon, only to find a story I wrote about a similar technique deployed in Russia to dilute Twitter hashtags being used by citizens protesting last year’s disputed parliamentary elections there.

“We first discovered these tweets looking at Twitter via the web, then looked at TweetDeck to see how quickly they were coming,” Rand said in an email to KrebsOnSecurity.com late last week. “They no longer appear when searching for Tibet on Twitter via the web, but are still flooding in fast via TweetDeck. This looks like an attempt to suppress news about recent activism surrounding Tibet. We’re not sure how long it’s been going on for. We noticed it last night, and it’s still happening now.” Continue reading →


8
Dec 11

Twitter Bots Drown Out Anti-Kremlin Tweets

Thousands of Twitter accounts apparently created in advance to blast automated messages are being used to drown out Tweets sent by bloggers and activists this week who are protesting the disputed parliamentary elections in Russia, security experts said.

Image: Twitterbot.info

Amid widespread reports of ballot stuffing and voting irregularities in the election, thousands of Russians have turned out in the streets to protest. Russian police arrested hundreds of protesters who had gathered in Moscow’s Triumfalnaya Square, including notable anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny. In response, protesters began tweeting their disgust in a Twitter hashtag #триумфальная (Triumfalnaya), which quickly became one of the most-tweeted hashtags on Twitter.

But according to several experts, it wasn’t long before messages sent to that hashtag were drowned out by pro-Kremlin tweets that appear to have been sent by countless Twitter bots. Maxim Goncharov, a senior threat researcher at Trend Micro, observed that “if you currently check this hash tag on twitter you’ll see a flood of 5-7 identical tweets from accounts that have been inactive for months and that only had 10-20 tweets before this day. To this point those hacked accounts have already posted 10-20 more tweets in just one hour.”

“Whether the attack was supported officially or not is not relevant, but we can now see how social media has become the battlefield of a new war for freedom of speech,” Goncharov wrote.

I’ve been working with a few security researchers inside of Russia who asked not to be named for fear of retribution by patriotic Russian hackers or the government. Since Trend’s posting, they’ve identified thousands of additional accounts (e.g., @ALanskoy, @APoluyan, @AUstickiy, @AbbotRama, @AbrahamCaldwell…a much longer list is available here) that are rapidly posting anti-protester or pro-Kremlin sentiments to more than a dozen hashtags and keywords that protesters are using to share news, including #Navalny. Continue reading →