How Hackers Use Bots to Score Prime Restaurant Reservations

Alternatively, you could always just find a place that’s empty.

Forget about hacking an app or database: for a small cadre of hackers in San Francisco, it’s all about writing code that can score them a great table at a hot restaurant.

According to the BBC, these developers and programmers have designed bots that scan restaurant Websites for open tables and reserve them. Diogo Mónica, a security engineer with e-commerce firm Square, is one of those programmers. A self-described foodie, he decided to get around his inability to score a table at the ultra-popular State Bird Provisions by writing a script that sent out an email every time the restaurant’s reservation page changed.

“Once a reservation got canceled I would get an email and could quickly get it for myself,” he wrote in a blog posting. But soon he noticed something peculiar: “As soon as reservations became available on the website (at 4am), all the good times were immediately taken and were gone by 4:01am.” He suspected it was automated “reservation bots at work,” built by other programmers with a hankering for fine cuisine.

“After a while even cancellations started being taken immediately from under me,” he wrote. “It started being common receiving an email alerting of a change, seeing an available time, and it being gone by the time the website loaded.” His solution was to build his own reservation bot, using Ruby, and post the code in the wild.

Mónica expects the bot wars to only escalate in the future; he pointed the BBC to Websites such as HackerTable that can automate reservation-making. But restaurant owners and spokespeople have pushed back, arguing to the news service that only a certain percentage of table reservations actually go online, and that the best way to score a good seat at an ideal time is to become a regular who’s really friendly with the maître d.

In some ways, the process of automating restaurant reservations echoes the high-frequency trading craze that’s currently gripping Wall Street, in which sophisticated algorithms are used to wheel and deal commodities at a fraction of a second. Other industries such as online retailing also rely on automated scripts to rapidly adjust prices in respond to changing conditions. But at least a misbehaving reservations bug is unlikely to melt down the financial markets or price a textbook at a million bucks.


Image: Rrrainbow/