Are Internet Bots Gobbling Up Restaurant Reservations?

The Internet and the people who control it are threatening to simultaneously inform and erode your dining decisions. News broke yesterday that Internet bots (automated software programs) are snarfing up reservations on Urban Spoon in San Francisco.

Diogo Mónica, a security engineer at Square, was having trouble getting a reservation at his favorite local restaurant. To increase his chances, he hastily designed a short software program that reports when a reservations page on Urban Spoon exhibits a change. The program sent him an email when tables opened up so he could snag a reservation for himself.

But he still couldn't. Mónica noticed that new reservations were consistently released at 4 a.m. They also were consistently gobbled up by 4:01 a.m. Canceled reservations were also captured within minutes, leaving him hungry and confused. So Mónica sounded the alarm. He declared an Internet arms race for restaurant reservations.

Urban Spoon was quick to refute his findings, saying their own data does not support Mónica's theory that bots are taking over their servers. Besides, they said, they have measures in place to prevent duplicate reservations.

Mónica, however, says his data speaks for itself. He even published the code for those smart enough to run it on a server, and invites other code-monkeys to check out the results for themselves.

It makes sense that Urban Spoon would have problems with bots, especially for restaurants whose reservations are in high demand and even if they've employed countermeasures. Ticketmaster claims Internet bots have been used to buy more than 60 percent of the most desirable tickets for some of the shows it handles, despite the company taking an aggressive stance (including lawsuits) to disable them.

Here in Dallas there aren't many high-demand restaurants that offer an opportunity for Internet derelicts to take advantage of. (Perhaps the most in-demand restaurant, Oak Cliff's Lucia, only takes reservations over the phone.)

It could happen, though. Want to assure yourself reservations at high-demand restaurants for years to come? You better brush up on your Ruby.

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