A technology war is being waged between people making bots to snatch highly desirable items like the PS5 and specialists trying to prevent them, but a change in law is not the answer, an expert has said.
Gamers have been battling to get their hands on the latest PlayStation and Xbox consoles amid limited stock supplies since both were released in November last year.
Consumers recently expressed frustration after a Twitter account promoting a service called Carnage Bot claimed to help bot users secure 2,000 pre-orders of the PS5 via Game.co.uk, saying it “just keeps getting easier every time”.
These bots, known as scalper bots, continuously monitor websites for products that are limited in stock.
The moment they become available, the bot has the user’s payment details ready to go, to secure the items within milliseconds, making it near impossible for a human to compete.
Many are then sold on with the intention of turning a profit, via sites such as eBay, costing considerably more than their original price.
The practice is not illegal.
While the issue is not new, it is gaining more awareness, so much so that a group of MPs in December called for the resale of gaming consoles purchased by automated bots to be made illegal.
“I think they’re unethical and I think they’re probably immoral,” Dr Bill Mitchell, director of policy at BCS – The Chartered Institute for IT, told the PA news agency.
“We are in a capitalist society, so it’s not quite clear that the principle is itself wrong.
“Where the unethical and unfairness is in this, is that the retailers want every human to have an equal chance of getting this thing and the bots are trying to subvert that principle.
“It’s not about legality, I don’t think, it’s about ethics and good practice.”
Captcha technologies, where people do basic tests such as selecting images that show a bus to prove they are human, have been developed to catch bots, but Dr Mitchell warns it is getting harder with ever-sophisticated artificial intelligence thrown into the mix.
“There’s a kind of a technology war going on between the people who are building the kind of Captcha-type technologies and the people who are trying to outsmart the Captcha-like technologies, and now of course, to throw AI into the game and it all becomes great fun,” he told PA.
“We have both sides trying to develop AI systems that can outsmart each other.”
Dr Mitchell suggests that one way of getting around the scalpers is by doing away with first-come-first-served and instead create a paid raffle system for highly sought after items.
For example, charge 10p for a chance to guarantee a pre-order of the PS5 and retailers can give that money to charity.
“If you automate that, if you’ve got one of your bots and it’s trying to get in there and put, you know, 50,000 orders in, well you know what, your bots are going to have to buy 50,000 raffle tickets at 10p each and so suddenly it’s not worth it economically,” Dr Mitchell explained.
“The kind of people who are doing this, they’re not like major industrial enterprises, they are small groups of people that are working together to do this, sharing code, it’s kind of a cottage industry I would say at the moment.”
Retailer Game said it has “strong measures” in place to ensure only one console is being offered per customer.
“All pre-orders are subject to automatic checks and order updates such as cancellations following these checks take place after a customer will have received a valid order confirmation email,” a spokesperson said.
“At the present time these orders are still pre-orders and as such no payments have yet been taken from customers.
“Payments will commence once our order checks have been completed.”