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Meet the vaccine appointment bots, and their foes

Matt O'Brien
Associated Press

Having trouble scoring a COVID-19 vaccine appointment? You’re not alone. To cope, some people are turning to bots that scan overwhelmed websites and send alerts on social media when slots open up.

They’ve provided relief to families helping older relatives find scarce appointments. But not all public health officials think they’re a good idea.

In rural Buckland, Massachusetts, two hours west of Boston, a vaccine clinic canceled a day of appointments after learning that out-of-towners scooped up almost all of them in minutes thanks to a Twitter alert. In parts of New Jersey, health officials added steps to block bots, which they say favor the tech-savvy.

FILE - In this Jan. 21, 2021 file photo, people wait in line for the COVID-19 vaccine in Paterson, N.J.

Bots — basically autonomous programs on the web — have emerged amid widespread frustration with the online world of vaccine appointments.

Though the situations vary by state, people often have to check multiple provider sites for available appointments. Weeks after the rollout began, demand for vaccines continues to outweigh supply, complicating the search even for eligible people as they refresh appointment sites to score a slot. When a coveted opening does appear, many find it can vanish midway through the booking.

The most notable bots scan vaccine provider websites to detect changes, which could mean a clinic is adding new appointments. The bots are often overseen by humans, who then post alerts of the openings using Twitter or text notifications.

A second type that’s more worrisome to health officials are “scalper” bots that could automatically book appointments, potentially to offer them up for sale. So far, there’s little evidence scalper bots are taking appointments.

The creator of one bot, software engineer Kenneth Hsu, said his original motivation was to help get an appointment for his own parents-in-law. Now he and other volunteers have set a broader mission of assisting others locked out of New Jersey’s confusing online appointment system.

“These are people who just want to know they’re on a list somewhere and they are going to be helped,” Hsu said. “We want everyone vaccinated. We want to see our grandparents.”

The bots have met resistance in some communities. A bot that alerted Massachusetts residents to a clinic this week in sparsely populated Franklin County led many from the Boston area to take the slots. Local officials canceled all the appointments, switched to a private system and spread the word through senior centers and town officials.

New Jersey’s Union County put a CAPTCHA prompt in its scheduling system to confirm visitors are human, blocking efforts “to game” it with a bot, said Sebastian D’Elia, a county spokesperson.

But the person who created a bot in Union County, 24-year-old programmer Noah Marcus, said the current system isn’t fair, either.

“The system was already favoring the tech-savvy and the person who can just sit in front of their computer all day, hitting refresh,” Marcus said.

Marcus used the Python coding language to create a program that sifts through a vaccine clinic website, looking for certain keywords and tables that would indicate new appointments. Other bots use different techniques, depending on how the target website is built.

This kind of information gathering, known as web scraping, remains a source of rancor. Essentially, scraping is collecting information from a website that its owner doesn’t want collected, said Orin Kerr, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

“There’s disagreement in the courts about the legality of web-scraping,” Kerr said. “It’s a murky area. It’s probably legal but it’s not something we have certainty about.”