by Chris Baraniuk, New Scientist
Researchers at University College London (UCL) in the U.K. discovered a Twitter botnet that could be comprised of more than 350,000 accounts. They stumbled upon the botnet, which has tweeted thousands of random quotations from “Star Wars” novels, after taking a random sample of 1 percent of Twitter users, which produced about 6 million English-language accounts.
The researchers plotted the locations of the accounts on a map, and found more than 3,000 were within two oddly uniform rectangles; one roughly covering Europe and North Africa, and one over North America. Since so many of the accounts appeared to tweet from uninhabited deserts or oceans, the researchers concluded they were not real users.
The researchers then used the accounts as a training set for a machine-learning algorithm to identify other bots across Twitter with the same characteristics. All of the accounts were created between June and July in 2013, and none of them tweeted more than 11 times. If all of the accounts are shown to be related bots, it would be an unusually large botnet for Twitter. Although no one knows why the botnet was set up, the researchers theorize the bots are sold for money as fake followers, says UCL professor Shi Zhou. Read the report.