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Evolving our machine learning to stop mobile bots


7 min read

This post is also available in 简体中文 and 日本語.

When we launched Bot Management three years ago, we started with the first version of our ML detection model. We used common bot user agents to train our model to identify bad bots. This model, ML1, was able to detect whether a request is a bot or a human request purely by using the request’s attributes. After this, we introduced a set of heuristics that we could use to quickly and confidently filter out the lowest hanging fruit of unwanted traffic. We have multiple heuristic types and hundreds of specific rules based on certain attributes of the request, many of which are very hard to spoof. But machine learning is a very important part of our bot management toolset.

We started with a static model because we were starting from scratch, and we were able to experiment quickly with aggregated HTTP analytics metadata. After we launched the model, we quickly gathered feedback from early bot management customers to identify where we performed well but also how we could improve. We saw attackers getting smart, and so we generated a new set of model features. Our heuristics were able to accurately identify various types of bad bots giving us much better quality labeled data. Over time, our model evolved to adapt to changing bot behavior across multiple dimensions of the request, even if it had not been trained on that type of data before. Since then, we’ve launched five additional models that are trained on metadata generated by understanding traffic patterns across our network.

While our models were evolving over time, the patterns of traffic flowing through Cloudflare changed as well. Cloudflare started in a desktop first world, but mobile traffic has grown to make up more than 54% of traffic on our network. As mobile has become a significant share of traffic we see, we needed to adapt our strategy in order to be able to get better at detecting bots spoofing mobile applications. While desktop traffic shares many similarities regardless of the origin it’s connecting to, each mobile app is crafted with a specific use in mind, and built on a different set of APIs, with a different defined schema. We realized we needed to build a model that would prove to be more effective for websites that have mobile application traffic.

How we build and deploy our models

Before we dive into how we updated our models to incorporate an increasing volume of mobile traffic, we should first discuss how we build and train our models overall.

Data gathering and preparation

An ML model is only as good as the quality of data you train it with. We’ve been able to leverage the amount and variety of traffic on our network to create our training datasets.

We identify samples that we know are clearly bots - samples we are able to detect with heuristics or samples that are from verified bots, e.g., legitimate search engine crawlers, adbots.

We also can identify samples that are clearly not-bots. These are requests that are scored high when they solve a challenge or are authenticated.

Data analysis and feature selection

From this dataset, we can identify the best features to use, using the ANOVA (Analysis of Variance) f-value. We want to make sure different operating systems, browsers, device types, categories of bots, and fingerprints are well represented in our dataset. We perform statistical analysis of the features to understand their distribution within our datasets as well as how they would potentially influence predictions.

Model building and evaluation

Once we have our data, we can begin training a model. We’ve built an internal pipeline backed by Airflow that makes this process smooth. To train our model, we chose the Catboost library. Based on our problem definition, we train a binary classification model.

We split out training data into a training set and a test set. To choose the best hyperparameters for the model, we use the Catboost library’s grid search and random search algorithm.

We then train the model with the chosen hyperparameters.

Over time, we’ve developed granular datasets for testing out our model to ensure we accurately detect different types of bots, but we also want to make sure we have a very low false positive rate. Before we deploy our model to any customer traffic, we perform offline monitoring. We run predictions for different browsers, operating systems and devices. We then compare the predictions of the currently trained model to the production model on validation datasets. This is done with the help of validation reports created by our ML pipeline that includes summary statistics such as accuracy, feature importance for each dataset. Based on the results, we either iterate or we decide to proceed to deployment.

If we need to iterate, we like to understand better where we can make improvements. For this, we use the SHAP Explainer. The SHAP Explainer is an excellent tool to interpret your model’s prediction. Our pipeline produces SHAP graphs for our predictions, and we dig into these deeper to understand the false positives or false negatives. This helps us to understand how and where we can improve our training data or features to get better predictions. We decide if an experiment should be deployed to customer traffic when it shows improvements in a majority of our test datasets over a previous model version.

Model deployment

While offline analysis of the model is a good indicator of the model’s performance, it’s best to validate the results in real time on a wider variety of traffic. For this, we deploy every new model first in shadow mode. Shadow mode allows us to log scores for traffic in real time without actually affecting bot management customer traffic. This allows us to perform online monitoring i.e. evaluating the model’s performance in real time for traffic. We break this down by different types of bots, devices, browsers, operating systems and customers using a set of Grafana dashboards and validate model accuracy improvement.

We then begin testing in active mode. We have the ability to roll out a model to different customer plans and sample the model for a percentage of requests or visitors. First we roll out to customers on the free plan, such as customers who enable I’m Under Attack Mode. Once we validate the model for free customers, we roll out to Super Bot Fight Mode customers gradually. We then allow customers who would like to beta test the model onboard and use it. Once our beta customers are happy, the new model is officially released as stable. Existing customers can choose to upgrade to this model, all new customers will get the latest version by default.

How we improved mobile app performance

With our latest model, we set out to use the above training process to specifically improve performance on mobile app traffic. To train our models, we need labeled data: a set of HTTP requests that we've manually annotated as either "bot" or "human" traffic. We gather this labeled data from a variety of sources as we spoke about above, but one area where we've historically struggled is finding good datasets for "human" traffic from mobile applications. Our best sample of “good” traffic was when the client was able to solve a browser challenge or CAPTCHA. Unfortunately, this also limited the variety of good traffic we could have in our dataset since a lot of “good” traffic cannot solve CAPTCHA - like a subset of mobile app traffic. Most CAPTCHA solutions rely on web technologies like HTML + JavaScript and are meant to be executed and rendered via a web browser. Native mobile apps, on the other hand, may not be capable of rendering CAPTCHAs properly, so most native mobile app traffic will never make it into these datasets.

This means that "human" traffic from native mobile applications was typically under-represented in our training data compared to how common it is across the Internet. In turn, this led to our models performing worse on native mobile app traffic compared to browser traffic. In order to rectify this situation, we set out to find better datasets.

We leveraged a variety of techniques to identify subsets of requests that we could confidently label as legitimate native mobile app traffic. We dug through open source code for mobile operating systems as well as popular libraries and frameworks to identify how legitimate mobile app traffic should behave. We also worked with some of our customers to identify domain-specific traffic patterns that could distinguish legitimate mobile app traffic from other types of traffic.

After much testing, feedback, and iteration, we came up with multiple new datasets that we incorporated into our model training process to greatly improve the performance on mobile app traffic.

Improvements in mobile performance

With added data from validated mobile app traffic, our newest model can identify valid user requests originating from mobile app traffic by understanding the unique patterns and signals that we see for this type of traffic. This month, we released our latest machine learning model, trained using our newly identified valid mobile request dataset, to a select group of beta customers. The results have been positive.

In one case, a food delivery company saw false positive rates for Android traffic drop to 0.0%. That may sound impossible, but it’s the result of training on trusted data.

In another case, a major Web3 platform saw similar improvement. Previous models had shown false positives, varying between 28.7% and 40.7% for edge case mobile application traffic. Our newest model has brought this down to nearly 0.0%.

These are just two examples of results we’ve seen broadly, which has led to an increase in adoption of ML among customers protecting mobile apps. If you have a mobile app you haven’t yet protected with Bot Management, head to the Cloudflare dashboard today and see what the new model shows for your own traffic. We provide free bot analytics to all customers, so you can see what bots are doing on your mobile apps today, and turn on Bot Management if you see something you’d like to block. If your mobile app is driven by APIs, as most are, you might also want to take a look at our new API Gateway.

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Reid Tatoris|@reidtatoris

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