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Reagan Taplin
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350,000 robots tweet about Star Wars

Many Twitter users aren't real people. For example, there's a network of 350,000 accounts that did nothing but automatically post tweets about Star Wars novels. It's called the Star Wars botnet. It appeared in 2013. Then it went quiet. it was discovered only recently. Nobody knows why it exists.

It was found recently - almost by accident! Two cybersecurity researchers at University College London downloaded data about 6 million English-speaking Twitter accounts. That's about 1% of the total number.

They found something bizarre, shown on the map here.

Twitter lets you quickly download the most recent 3,200 tweets of any user, along with geo-tags that are supposed to say where the tweets came from. This let the researchers map the locations of all the tweets they downloaded. As you'd expect, most tweets came from densely populated regions - with a distribution nicely matching the population distribution.

But they also found 23,000 tweets that were geo-located in uninhabited regions - like deserts and oceans! And when they plotted these locations, they fit neatly into two precise rectangles, one around the U.S. and the other around Europe!

Conclusion: these tweets came from bots randomly choosing locations in the two rectangles.

They looked through the 3,000 accounts that created these tweets. None of these accounts had ever published more than 11 tweets. They never had more than 10 followers. They never had fewer than 31 friends. They were all produced by Twitter for Windows phones.

But here's the real giveaway: they all contained random quotations from Star Wars novels - with hashtags inserted at random. A typical example:

Luke’s answer was to put on an extra burst of speed. There were only ten meters #separating them now.

Quoting from Technology Review:

At this point, Echeverria and Zhou conjectured that they had stumbled across a single botnet, presumably controlled by a single botmaster. This botnet was obviously large since 3,000 bots had appeared in a random search. And that raised an obvious question: just how big was this botnet?

To find out, the researchers trained a machine-learning algorithm to recognize Star Wars bots and set it loose on a much larger database of 14 million English-speaking Twitter users.

The results were a shock. The machine-learning algorithm, with the help of some manual filtering, found some 350,000 accounts that had the same characteristics. These accounts had never tweeted more than 11 times, had fewer than 31 friends and were all produced by Twitter for Windows Phone.

What’s more, this entire botnet was created in just a few days in June and July 2013. At the time, it produced 150,000 tweets a day.

Then it stopped. “When the creation of new Star Wars bots stopped on 14 July 2013, all the bots suddenly fell silent and remained so ever since,” say Echeverria and Zhou.

But the accounts have not been closed down or deleted. They could all tweet at a moment’s notice, should the botmaster so decide. Echeverria and Zhou say the bots have avoided detection because they were deliberately designed to keep a low profile. “It seems the Star Wars bots were deliberately designed to circumvent many of the heuristics underlying previous bot detection methods,” say Echeverria and Zhou.

Echeverria and Zhou conjecture that perhaps this botnet will be sold at some time... and spring into action.

Since then, they've found an even larger botnet, with 500,000 accounts!

So: beware of fake news, trolls, and zombies.

Read more here:

• Cybersecurity experts uncover dormant botnet of 350,000 Twitter accounts, Technology Review, 20 January 2017, https://www.technologyreview.com/s/603404/cybersecurity-experts-uncover-dormant-botnet-of-350000-twitter-accounts/

and read the original paper here:

• Juan Echeverría and Shi Zhou, The “Star Wars” botnet with >350k Twitter bots, http://arxiv.org/abs/1701.02405.

Thanks to +Jan Galkowski for pointing this out!
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Do it!
Two new Bundles of Holding launched today, and there's an Engine Publishing book in each of them!

Worldbuilder's Toolkit +4 (http://bundleofholding.com/presents/Toolkit4) features Focal Point: The Complete Game Master's Guide to Running Extraordinary Sessions (http://www.enginepublishing.com/focal-point-the-complete-game-masters-guide-to-running-extraordinary-sessions) at the bonus level (around $20), along with a wealth of other GMing resources.

Meanwhile, in Worldbuilder's Toolkit +2 (http://bundleofholding.com/presents/GMToolkit2-2016), you can snag Odyssey: The Complete Game Master's Guide to Campaign Management (http://www.enginepublishing.com/odyssey-the-complete-game-masters-guide-to-campaign-management) -- also at the bonus level, around $15 -- plus a bevy of other books.

These bundles are both a great deal, offering lots of books for much less than their usual PDF prices, and both include the full, DRM-free, multi-format digital editions of our books. And on top of that, a portion of each sale is donated to Doctors Without Borders (http://www.doctorswithoutborders.org/), a worthy cause if there ever was one.

Both bundles end December 12, so you've got a bit of time to poke around and see what you think before these deals expire.

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Tonight we rolled up characters for +John Powell 's upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy-style game. We rolled randomly to inspire us, then massaged the results a little to make it all fit.

This one's a goer, mate!
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11/24/16
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The Mando'ade are here at the shop, so come on down and talk cosplay!
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Added photos to Outsider Comics Grand Opening Festivities!.

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Grand Opening Event!! This is a big weekend with the Mandalorian Mercs Costume Club and the Seattle Video Game Choir and Orchestra. The Mercs will be at the shop at 3 pm, and the VGCO will be coming to play at 6 pm on November 12. Email your 8-bit song requests to info@outsidercomics.com!

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+Paul Morrissey and +Heather Nuhfer are here at Outsider Comics and Geek Boutique, signing things and hanging out at our grand opening. Come by and say hello!
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