Have you ever heard of the term bot? If not, that is okay, but you have likely dealt with a bot or even battled one without knowing it. A typical example of a bot could be an automated customer service system, where users are prompted or directed toward specific actions.
In this case, the bot and the company behind it have good intentions (trying to help the customer find what they need). Still, the bot’s impact often leads me to scream into the phone respectfully and repeatedly hit the “0” to try to reach the operator.
Other bots are not so well-intentioned. One popular example of a “bad” bot is a ticket bot. Often real human beings are competing against ticket bots to purchase sought-after concert tickets. Spoiler alert these bots win a lot, and tickets are then resold on third-party sites for three times the cost.
While security measures like the CAPTCHA (Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart) are put in place to prevent bot attacks, their automation is relentless!
So what exactly is a bot?
The term bot can be explained as a computer program designed to perform automated tasks over the internet. Bots can be programmed to interact with humans or other bots and can be used for various purposes. Some bots are designed to mimic human conversation (chatbots), while others may be used for automated testing or data analysis. Bots can be simple or complex, depending on their intended use and the level of programming expertise required to create them.
As one might suspect, this leads to specific problems. Holistically, the world continues to move toward online work, and it becomes difficult to distinguish between a real human being and a bot acting like one. Scammers take advantage of this and can often compound these issues by manipulating systems and creating multiple accounts — a phenomenon known today as the Sybil attacks.
In 1962 Flora Rheta Schreiber was sitting in a restaurant on Madison Avenue in New York City. She was there to interview and meet an individual living with Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), formerly known as Multiple Personality Disorder. Acting under the pseudonym of Sybil Isabel Doreset, Sybil claimed to be host to 16 different personalities and was working with Psychoanalyst Dr. Cornelia B Wilbur.
This outing would kick off a series of meetings documented in the 1973 book Sybil. Sybil sold over 6 million copies and was made into a film, but there was just one problem — it wasn’t true. In the 2012 book Sybil Exposed, writer Debbie Nathan exposes the lies and demonstrates how Sybil recanted her story of having 16 personalities. Like the bots, these were fabricated accounts, and the term has stuck to describe a person impersonating multiple accounts.
How can we prevent these Sybil attacks and bots from negatively impacting our day-to-day work?
One potential solution could be applications like BrightID and Proof of Humanity. These tools use social graphs or links between people to validate human connections and deter fake accounts. By vouching that you know or have met someone in real life, you help develop a robust web of trust that bolsters support for a specific identity.
Using these real-world connections could also mitigate the need to provide personal information to central authorities or organizations. Instead, these applications would operate on a peer-to-peer basis, with users verifying each other’s identity. This approach decentralizes verification and offers benefits like integration with tools like Discord and Gitcoin. Future applications could be large voting systems.
While these tools are still in their infancy, it is interesting to see how the use cases of Proof of Humanity and BrightID could evolve. Will they be effective in preventing Sybil attacks? Will the web of trust delineate the bots from the humans? Could someone still subvert the system?
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