Abigail Johnston and Steve Fotter have been taking the same vacation for decades. For a week, twice a year, they pack up their car with sleeping bags, books and bug spray and drive an hour to Steep Ravine at Mount Tamalpais State Park.
Nestled along the coast of Marin County, down beneath the cliffs of the Pacific, they make their way to one of 10 primitive wooden cabins. There’s no electricity or running water, but luxury is not why people visit Steep Ravine. They go for the sweeping views of the ocean and a secluded beach a few steps away.
For Abigail and Steve, this state park is heaven on earth -- a sanctuary they’ve been visiting since the cabins opened to the public in 1984. But it’s gotten tough to get a spot. Almost impossible.
When the registration window opens at 8 a.m. most cabins are booked by 8:01 a.m. Abigail and Steve have been trying to book a cabin for a year now, with no success.
Are others beating them through the reservation system? Or are they falling short because they’re competing against something not quite human: bots?
Bots are software that can automatically perform routine tasks on the internet. You’ve probably used a bot online and not even realized it, like when you search the web or look for cheap flights on sites like Kayak or Expedia, instead of having to check each airline yourself,
The bots go and pull all that information into one helpful place. But bots can also be used nefariously, such as taking down a website by overwhelming its servers and making it impossible for legitimate users to access the system.
I was unable to confirm if bots are reserving campsites, but they are certainly active on ReserveAmerica’s website.
Scraping For Availability
Chris Streeter is a software engineer living in San Francisco. He wanted a campsite for Easter weekend at another popular park, Big Basin Redwoods State Park. The place was 100 percent booked, but he kept checking the ReserveAmerica website for cancellations -- a common strategy for snagging a last-minute spot.
“It involves going to reserveamerica.com, checking to see if there’s a site available. There’s not, so you have to keep coming back super often. I decided to automate the process,” says Streeter.
He built a bot that looks for cancellations on ReserveAmerica.
“Every 15 minutes [the bot] just checks. And if there’s a site, it posts a little notification in my Mac that says, ‘Hey, there’s a site available,’ ” says Streeter.
This bot is not the only one of its kind. There’s a bot for Yosemite, too.
The code for the Yosemite bot is posted on GitHub, a code-sharing website. Anyone who finds the code and understands it can use it. It was written by Brian Hansen, another computer engineer based in San Francisco. Hansen is a rock climber and, like most climbers, he sees Yosemite as a mecca.
“Most climbers I know will set alarms early on May 15th,” wrote Hansen via email. “I personally prefer more spontaneous trips, and was told that my only recourse was to refresh the recreation.gov website repeatedly until a campsite opened up due to cancellation.”
According to Hansen’s GitHub stats, people have been copying the bot.
Is It Legal?
The Better Online Ticket Sales Act (also called the BOTS Act) targets bots used for ticket scalping at events over a certain size, so the non-commercial personal-use bots built by Streeter and Hansen don’t qualify. Specialists in internet law say that these bots fall into a legal gray area.
According to Jeffrey Rosenfeld of KR Internet Law, “If users click to check a box saying they’ve read and agree to the terms and conditions, that would be considered legally binding.”
Even if it is legally binding, most prosecutors will only go after people who are trying to make money or steal business from the site.
“Unless you're going to try to commercialize the website's content, most businesses and website operators won't care what you do,” says Rosenfeld.
When people do try to commercialize campsites, California State Parks has been quick to shut them down and threaten legal action under the California Penal Code. The last vendor the Parks shut down was called “Adventure Man.” Some vendors make big promises to get customers reservations at the most difficult campgrounds, but California State Parks representatives didn’t know if they used bots.
Andrea Matwyshyn specializes in technology and innovation policy at Northeastern University. She says Streeter's and Hansen’s bots could also fall under unauthorized access, but that “in the 9th Circuit, it’s unlikely that this case would be pursued by prosecutors.”
Hansen has considered that his bot is in a legal gray area, but isn’t worried about prosecution because “it’s such a small project, but [the questionable legality] is why I haven’t made a real website out of this or pursued developing third-party reservation optimization much further,” Hansen wrote.
Is It Fair?
Some might say that Streeter and Hansen are problem-solving in an innovative way. Their bots create more free time and could potentially be the start of businesses that create jobs.
Others feel differently.
“There’s a fairness question. ... It’s an act of creating technology haves and technology have nots,” Matwyshyn says.
Streeter has thought about fairness. He says he could automate the whole process and have a bot that completes his booking for him. He says that program might exist, but he hasn’t built it.
“I look at it as, I’m not doing anything a human couldn’t do. It’s the same thing as setting an alarm on your phone every 15 minutes,” Streeter says.
If he made a faster or more advanced bot, no human could compete with it. And faster, more advanced bots have been built in similar contexts.
In 2013, students at New York’s Baruch College created bots to get better registration times for classes.
“The student body was very divided over whether they thought the students were cheating or if they were simply using their skills in an innovative way,” says Matwyshyn.
Bots have been used to gain advantage in the Bay Area restaurant scene, too. Tables at San Francisco restaurant State Bird Provisions have been a big target for bots. One company, TableSweep, even scrapes OpenTable for cancellations at top restaurants and charges customers $5 for every successfully booked reservation.
Matwyshyn believes there needs to be space for innovation, but if not everyone has the same access to technology, it raises a lot of questions.
“That's a debate that we need to have as a society. And these questions of scraping data and aggregating and reusing [data] are our very entry point to those questions that are going to show up on steroids in the next 10 to 20 years,” says Matwyshyn.
Can We Stop It?
The contractor running reserveamerica.com would not return emails or calls requesting comment. But because they work for California State Parks, they did respond to Brian Ketterer, its southern field division chief.
“They said they have software that screens for bots. They were not aware of any infiltration into our reservation system,” says Ketterer.
A typical bot prevention measure might include adding a CAPTCHA (that’s the "Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart"), but programmers have gotten around it by hiring real people to fill them out. Artificial intelligence can also be trained to fill out a CAPTCHA.
Another preventative measure could be two-step authentication. That’s when a website texts you a number that you must type into the site.
The parks could also move away from online reservations and back to booking things over the phone. Award-winning Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse said they’ve never noticed a bot problem and attribute it to the fact that most reservations are completed by phone. Paying for more man-hours could be costly, though.
This could also be tackled from the supply side. After all, these bots were a response to a scarce resource.
Increasing the Supply
“There are only 459 campsites in Yosemite Valley and over 4 million people visit the park each year,” says Yosemite ranger and representative Jamie Richards. “We are fully booked the entire summer and beyond.”
The California State Parks system isn't much better.
“The real story here is a lack of inventory,” says Ketterer.
Almost 40 million people live in California and over 200 million visit the state as tourists each year. According to Ketterer, there are about 14,600 campsites and accommodations available by reservation.
“And if you look at those numbers, it’s not in your favor. It’s like playing the lottery” he says.
California has seen the number of reservations steadily increasing. In just the past year, reservations were up by 9 percent, says Ketterer, and parks can’t keep up with growing demand. They don’t have the budget to open and maintain new campsites.
It should also be noted that not all campgrounds are equally popular. According to Ketterer, coastal campsites with accommodations are the most difficult to snag. Even without bots, there is fierce competition.
“We've heard from people who have businesses using the employees in the office to sit by their computers and sit by their phones and try to get that reservation,” he says.
Even Ketterer has trouble getting a spot.
“I have yet to visit Crystal Cove State Park as a visitor and I would love to do that. I’ve also tried for Big Sur and I have yet to get into there. And I’ve tried for about five years.”
Have you heard of people using bots to get campsites? Have you heard of people using bots for other popular events or items? Send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated when the reservation window opens for the Steep Ravine cabins. It's on the 1st of each month.