Botnet is a jargon term for a collection of software robots, or bots, that run autonomously and automatically. The term is often associated with malicious software but it can also refer to the network of computers using distributed computing software. While botnets are often named after their malicious software name, there are typically multiple botnets in operation using the same malicious software families, but operated by different criminal entities.
While the term "botnet" can be used to refer to any group of bots, such as IRC bots, this word is generally used to refer to a collection of compromised computers (called Zombie computers) running software, usually installed via drive-by downloads exploiting Web browser vulnerabilities, worms, Trojan horses, or backdoors, under a common command-and-control infrastructure.
A botnet's originator (aka "bot herder" or "bot master") can control the group remotely, usually through a means such as IRC, and usually for nefarious purposes. Individual programs manifest as IRC "bots". Often the command-and-control takes place via an IRC server or a specific channel on a public IRC network. This server is known as the command-and-control server ("C&C"). Though rare, more experienced botnet operators program their own commanding protocols from scratch. The constituents of these protocols include a server program, client program for operation, and the program that embeds itself on the victim's machine (bot). All three of these usually communicate with each other over a network using a unique encryption scheme for stealth and protection against detection or intrusion into the botnet network.
A bot typically runs hidden and uses a covert channel (e.g. the RFC 1459 (IRC) standard, twitter or IM) to communicate with it C&C server. Generally, the perpetrator of the botnet has compromised a series of systems using various tools (exploits, buffer overflows, as well as others; see also RPC). Newer bots can automatically scan their environment and propagate themselves using vulnerabilities and weak passwords. Generally, the more vulnerabilities a bot can scan and propagate through, the more valuable it becomes to a botnet controller community. The process of stealing computing resources as a result of a system being joined to a "botnet" is sometimes referred to as "scrumping."
Botnets have become a significant part of the Internet, albeit increasingly hidden. Due to most conventional IRC networks taking measures and blocking access to previously-hosted botnets, controllers must now find their own servers. Often, a botnet will include a variety of connections and network types. Sometimes a controller will hide an IRC server installation on an educational or corporate site where high-speed connections can support a large number of other bots. Exploitation of this method of using a bot to host other bots has proliferated only recently as most script kiddies do not have the knowledge to take advantage of it.
Several botnets have been found and removed from the Internet. The Dutch police found a 1.4 million node botnet and the Norwegian ISP Telenor disbanded a 10,000-node botnet. Large coordinated international efforts to shut down botnets have also been initiated. It has been estimated that up to one quarter of all personal computers connected to the internet may be part of a botnet.