For anyone reading the news about Ticketmaster and Taylor Swift, or Twitter and Elon Musk, the problem of malicious bots might seem insurmountable.
These automated programs can snap up concert tickets in the blink of an eye, or pose as humans on social media, among countless other mischievous tasks. Bad bots are a big problem, accounting for one-quarter to as much as one-half of global internet traffic, or even more, by different estimates.
But they are not invincible.
That’s the assessment of F5 CEO François Locoh-Donou. Seattle-based F5 is one of a growing number of tech companies that offer solutions to detect, deter, and defeat bots. Others include Akamai Technologies, Cloudflare, Google, PerimiterX, Imperva, Datacom and many others.
“You beat that automation — that bad automation from bad actors — with better technology, and that better technology does exist today,” he says.
Locoh-Donou joins us to discuss the issue on this week’s GeekWire Podcast. He says he cares about the topic not only because F5 is in the business of battling bots, but because of the threat they pose to trust in the digital world.
“The prevalence and sophistication of bots, over the last several years, has increased exponentially because of the availability of the technology, and availability of human talent that is used to power bots,” Locoh-Donou says.
“A number of retailers and certainly social media companies haven’t really understood or grasped the motivation of the people who are creating these bots, and the sophistication of these bots, and the way that they are distorting the information that we are looking at,” he added. “So that’s why bots have become such a big issue in the digital world.”
Many companies treat the battle against bots as a “DIY project,” hiring their own engineers to address the problem, or leaving it to their internal security teams to deal with it, which Locoh-Donou described as a mistake.
To be sure, F5 has a vested interest in that viewpoint. Its security products and services include Distributed Cloud Bot Defense, which resulted from the company’s $1 billion acquisition of Shape Security three years ago.
However, there’s a growing consensus in the tech industry that battling bots does require specialized technology.
“Organizations are beginning to realize that firewalls, denial of service attack prevention, and network security features … are insufficient to solve bot problems,” said Aite-Novarica Group, a financial services research and advisory firm, in a September 2022 report. “Purpose-built bot management solutions are a must to defend against today’s sophisticated bots and nefarious operators that quickly ‘out tool’ bot detection.”
The market is “reaching critical mass,” at an estimated $860 million overall this year, on track for a market size of $1.2 billion in 2025, Aite-Novarica estimates.
Aite-Novarica put F5’s bot detection and defense technology in the category of “best in class” in its report. Forrester Research categorized F5 as a “contender” in the bot management market, in an April 2022 report.
“Bad bots continue to consume resources and overwhelm organizations,” the Forrester analysts wrote. “Modern bot management tools must keep up with ever-evolving attacks, offer a range of out-of-the-box and customizable reports, and enable human end customers to transact business with little friction or frustration.”
It’s part of a burgeoning business for F5, the publicly traded Seattle-based enterprise tech company, which specializes in areas including application delivery and security, networking, and multi-cloud management. Security revenue at F5 reached $1 billion in its latest fiscal year, or 37% of overall annual revenue.
Locoh-Donou says F5’s anti-bot technology analyzes thousands of signals, looking for telltale patterns that indicate the presence of bots on their websites and applications. It then leverages 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 such as the Ticketmaster bot problem, he says he feels sad and frustrated thinking about the thousands of legitimate fans — including his own kids — who want fair access to buy tickets.
“I feel frustrated when I see that, because it’s a distortion of the digital world. And I know that there are there solutions to solve that,” he said. “Companies have a responsibility to take this issue, this prevalence of bots, more seriously.”
So Ticketmaster’s bot problem could be solved with the right technology?
“Yes,” he said. “100%”