Predators and Prey: Just Another Day on the Web

n nature, when a new food resource emerges, it sets off a chain of events. Organisms that can exploit the new resource become successful and in turn become attractive prey for predators. The prey species then adopts strategies to resist predation, while the predators evolve and learn new strategies to overcome the prey’s new defenses. This continually escalating but stalemated battle continues as long as the food source is available.

Oddly enough, this cycle is eerily parallel to our use of the Internet. By studying common predator-prey interaction patterns we can make some sense of the forces that dictate both business and consumer use behaviors online, and perhaps even find ways of looking at nature to predict predator strategies that Web predators haven’t yet adopted?and forewarned, evolve more effective defenses.

The Web as a Resource
The Web appeared rather suddenly as a fast-growing collection of navigable pages that attracted a huge audience nearly immediately. In this scenario, the Web is a natural food resource, and the organisms that evolved to consume it are computer users (the prey). During the initial explosion, the resource was free, but?just as in nature?there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Advertisers (one of the predators) rapidly learned to “hunt” by exploiting the Web as a new channel for distributing marketing messages. Web predators are successful when they cause the prey to visit the marketer’s site (a click-through) or disgorge contact info (registration), or purchase a product.

In nature, predators and prey are locked in a constant battle. Overall, that battle is usually well-balanced. If a prey species were to win completely, their population would spiral out of control, they would overuse their resources, and then face starvation and/or extinction. If predators suddenly become too effective, the prey population drops, and the predators suffer or must find other food sources. In extreme cases (as probably happened with Ice Age prey such as mammoths when humans began hunting them) the predator manages to hunt the prey into extinction. Normally though, both predators and prey are constantly evolving, creating, and adopting new strategies; neither side can gain a terminal advantage.

Predators, of course, maximize their own success when they increase their predation success rate. Prey species maximize their success when they become fleet enough or grow sufficient armor or adopt camouflage, etc. that reduces the incidence of predation. Another defense strategy common in fish, insects, and smaller mammals is to increase the number of offspring, giving each a slightly greater chance of surviving to adulthood. Each advance in prey defensive strategy shifts the advantage in that direction. But the advantage is generally temporary; the predators typically find a way to overcome or circumvent the new defenses and balance is restored.

Symbionts and Parasites
For most people, the word predator generally evokes images of large cats, but not all predators are like lions, killing and eating one prey animal at a time. Parasites, bacteria and viruses embody a far more common type of predation. These, too have their Web counterparts. The similarities between natural and Web-borne viruses are rather obvious, and I won’t belabor those. The others discussed here are less so.

Static ads and free, no-registration Web sites quickly achieved a symbiotic relationship?similar to that in other free media. Web sites must create income, and one way to do that is to attract an audience that advertisers will pay money to reach. Text banners quickly mutated into image-based banners, which were visually more appealing, even though they often unnecessarily increased download time (remember that everyone had slow dialup access initially).

The ad-supported site relationship worked (and still works) reasonably well, but advertisers, who in other media had previously been content with having their messages exposed to a target audience, discovered that they could force Web sites to track the performance of advertising, and the clickthrough was born. At last, a way to measure advertising’s effectiveness directly! But their elation was short lived: They soon found that click-through rates dropped dramatically once Web advertising became prevalent. Web users developed blind spots in places where advertising was omnipresent. When static-ad click-through rates proved unsatisfactory, many advertisers began to try other, more invasive strategies.

Many moved to animated GIF images, both because the movement attracted attention, and because they could use animation to present more information in the same amount of space. Still others increased the size of their images, using the specious reasoning that increasing the size of (already) unwanted advertising would cause consumers to click them more often. Many sites began adding more ads, until the ads nearly surrounded the content, leaving only a narrow window for the content itself.

Right about this point the relationship turned from symbiotic to parasitic. Symbionts become parasitic when the cost of their coexistence becomes greater than the advantage they provide. In nature, prey populations often move away from the source of parasitic predators. On the Web, consumers?most of whom were tolerant of small banner ads?began to complain and even avoid sites with larger and more invasive ads, at least for a while.

Web site proprietors were limited in their choices because they were dependent on ad income. In most cases, the best they could do was limit and standardize ad sizes.

Even as advertisers adopted more invasive and reviled strategies, such as popup windows, DHTML-driven layers floating on (and often obscuring) content, and Flash advertising, avoidance ceased to be an option?many users and businesses had come to depend on the Web; in other words, the prey couldn’t move. So, instead, the prey began evolving strategies to combat such tactics.

Prey Adaptations
In nature, when a prey population can’t move, it must adapt to avoid over-predation. The strategies adopted in nature all have counterparts on the Web. For example many prey species adopt protective coloration or mimic other species. Web users use anonymity services, block cookies, and provide fake information to avoid leaving traces of their activities that advertisers can use for marketing purposes. Some prey species use armor. Web users create popup ad blockers and turn off JavaScript and images.

Some Web sites abandoned advertising revenue altogether, preferring instead to become symbionts themselves, trading content for income directly by charging for their content. In nature, many species become interdependent, forming alliances for mutual protection and/or food. For example, some ants, rather than foraging, “farm” aphids; they provide protection from aphid predators, and in return the aphids, when stroked, release “honeydew,” which feeds the ants. On the Web, for-fee sites provide protection from Web predators in return for payment as “food.”

If Web advertising is analogous to symbiosis, then malicious coders, thieves, and virus writers can be thought of as direct predators. In Web terms, the “kill” occurs when a predator manages to disrupt your computer or your life in some fashion. And while avoiding the Web altogether is a prey strategy that works well against symbionts and parasites, but is less successful against direct predation. Many people who don’t browse the Web, do operate applications that access the Internet. For example, it’s become increasingly difficult to function in the business world without email and instant messaging. Therefore, it’s not surprising to find that predators have exploited these in addition to Web pages.

E-mail is by far the most popular venue for direct predation. Web predators use email to attack both computers and people. The most direct threats that occur via email against computers are viruses; however greater individual damage occurs by stealing personal information. In nature, many predators employ lures of various kinds. The alligator snapping turtle, for example, wiggles its tongue, which looks much like a worm, to attract fish. Web email predators also use lures, to get people to cough up personal information or cash. Some common examples are false notifications from well-known sites such as eBay or Hotmail. Others lures offer money, such as the familiar “I’m from Nigeria. My late father amassed a fortune of $X million, and as you are a person of much trust, I would like you to help me transfer the funds …” or the ever popular “You have won a prize …” In all these cases, the goal is to get the prey to divulge credit card numbers, bank account numbers, login information, etc., which the predator then uses to impersonate the prey.

Direct predators also use application downloads as ground cover for hunting. Shareware and freeware vendors increasingly monetize their products by including adware and spyware in their downloads?installing the application also installs these unwanted applications. Adware displays banner ads at specified intervals or upon specific actions. Spyware sends details of your computer interactions to third parties without permission. Some malware does both. While the applications themselves are usually parasitic to the computer (they steal CPU cycles, memory, and personal information, but don’t usually crash the computer) the fact that they’re installed without the user’s direct permission or knowledge and that they perform actions intended to influence or damage the user puts them into the direct predation category.

Predators have also used Instant Messaging applications to deliver ads and lures to Internet users. In some cases, these are indirect lures, masking the real attack, which occurs only when users follow the lure. In nature, lions and other predators that hunt in packs often send one or two members out into plain sight, a strategy that captures the prey’s attention or scares them into moving away from the predators. Then, while the prey focuses on the predator, the rest of the pack attacks from another direction. The Internet counterpart to this strategy is messages that lure users to browse to a URL, where the predators use plugin or script vulnerabilities to attack their machine or steal data.

Mimicry and Other Strategies
Just as many prey species adopt protective coloration and use mimicry to hide from predators, some predators use similar techniques to mislead their targets. For example, several praying mantis species have evolved marvelous shapes and coloration that make them nearly invisible. Walking stick insects, which mimic twigs, are another famous natural example. Some sites or email messages mimic login pages such as Hotmail’s. The goal is to get users to enter their username and password, but when they do so, the information gets sent to the attacker’s site.

Other predator tactics include drive-by downloads, an exploit where a single click on an otherwise innocuous popup acts as user assent so the site can install software to the local computer. Some sites even bypass the click, installing software invisibly when a user visits a page.

Web users, in turn, are evolving new capabilities for preventing attacks by finding and removing malware; blocking unwanted content; ferreting out mimicry sites in the form of pest and malware databases; increasing their reliance on firewalls, NAT routers, anti-viral software, spam filters, ad and popup blockers, URL-blocking and filtering applications; and keeping their OS, applications, and hardware devices religiously patched and upgraded.

The Never-Ending Battle
Nearly every natural strategy, both predatory and defensive, seems to have an Internet counterpart. It’s both amusing and depressing to think about. The battles between Web predators and their prey will be just as endless as those in nature and will continue to change and escalate.

Despite the compressed evolutionary pattern, the Internet is still relatively new, whereas nature has had millions of years to fine-tune both attack and defensive strategies. By looking at nature to find strategies that don’t yet have Web counterparts, Web users may be able to stay an extra half-step ahead of the predators.

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