Getting a Vaccine Should Be Easier Than Getting a PlayStation

Our experience battling bots to get a gaming console highlights the inequities of vaccine distribution

The Charleston Convention Center and Coliseum in West Virginia on February 13, 2021. Photo: SOPA Images/Getty Images

At my makeshift work-from-home desk on our dining table, my Mac, iPhone, and iPad were all open to Best Buy’s page for the PlayStation 5. A few feet away from me in his home office, my husband, Max, also had his Mac, iPad, and iPhone open to the same Best Buy page. As the clock on our devices edged closer towards 10 a.m. Pacific Standard Time, all I could hear was the sound of our furious repeated tapping of the refresh buttons on all six of our devices as we both stared intently at our respective clocks. The stakes were high: We had been trying for over a month to get a PS5, but every time we neared the finish line and were able to add the item to our cart, they were sold out before we could even complete the purchase.

It was us versus the bots.

Bots (computer programs designed to perform repetitive online tasks) wreaked havoc on Christmas shoppers trying to get their hands on Sony’s latest console. They became known online as “Grinch bots”, as digital scalpers swiped up all stock in a matter of seconds, with consumers then finding them on sites like eBay paying triple the price. Walmart reported to the Washington Post that on Black Friday alone, it blocked 20 million bot sale attempts in just 30 minutes.

Scammers have exploited the increase in digital shopping brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic and have increased their use of bots. While digital scalpers have been utilizing bots to turn a quick profit on game consoles, tickets, and limited-edition sneakers for a while, bots that thwart shoppers in search of essential goods and services are relatively new. As the Biden administration announced its plans to ship 1 million vaccine doses directly to 6,500 retail pharmacies for distribution, security companies warn that your vaccine appointment slot could be the next target for digital scalpers and bots.

With demand far outstripping the supply and distribution of Covid-19 vaccines, social media has been awash with posts detailing the frustrations of making appointments. The recent PS5 bot debacle has made the private retail sector wary of the potential for bots to create problems. Spokespeople from both Walgreens and CVS say that they are preparing for heavy website traffic and have included cybersecurity upgrades to detect automated bot attacks.

In a recent press release, retail giant Walmart announced that once it received its allocation of vaccines from the federal government, it would allow eligible customers and members to make appointments “directly via a scheduling tool on the Walmart and Sam’s Club websites.” It cautioned that while the company would strive to “focus on security and any necessary mitigation steps that help us provide fair and equitable vaccination sign-ups,” they were only able to offer appointments while allocations last.

Equitable access to vaccines is also a prominent feature of the Biden administration’s national strategy to address the pandemic. It recognizes that there are massive inequities in the ability to secure a vaccine appointment, which disproportionately affect historically marginalized communities. For many in those communities, lack of access to high-speed internet that allows you to refresh your browser quickly multiple times or the ability to stay on the line for hours to secure an appointment highlights how technological inequality is making access to the vaccine more difficult for those most at risk.

Cybersecurity experts point out that retail sites are easier targets for bot attacks. Though access to vaccine appointments through local government websites may be a clunky, bureaucratic endeavor, the complicated need to access different sites to secure an appointment actually makes it harder for bots — and sometimes people — to complete the process.

Not all bots are bad, however. In less than two weeks, Twitter account TurboVax, “a bot that tweets available vaccine appointments from (New York) city and state run administration sites”, went from a thousand followers to over 58,000 as eligible New Yorkers rushed for access to appointments. Tweets to the account highlight how the bot helped users make appointments for themselves or their relatives.

By 9:59 a.m., our refresh button tapping got more and more frenzied as we shouted back and forth to get ready. As the digital nine turned to a zero in our clocks, I hit refresh as quickly as possible on all three of my devices, and the page began to load. By 10 a.m., our panic of how slow the page was loading was met with an instant “out of stock” right as our clocks moved and ticked over to 10:01 a.m. Bots had bought up all the stock in less than one minute.

After two solid months of waiting and trying, we finally managed to secure a PS5 from the 11 a.m. drop on Walmart that same day. While I was still fervently refreshing on all my devices, my husband “got lucky” on the Walmart app and managed to check out in the first minute before the console blinked “out of stock” once more.

As the U.S. Covid-19 death toll continues to rise, the vaccine has been a shiny glimmer of hope for millions of Americans desperately waiting to return to some semblance of normalcy.

Our experience trying to obtain something as innocuous as a game console highlights the inequities currently experienced by millions of Americans who don’t have the luxury of working from home, the use for several devices, or high-speed internet access to “get lucky” and secure a vaccine appointment. Though the Covid-19 vaccines are free to everyone, access to them sometimes comes at a high cost.

British. Writer and Conservationist. Child of the Commonwealth.

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