Microsoft opens headquarters for digital crime fighters

Cybercrime Center provides legal, technical experts and facilities to thwart online crooks

Cybersleuths on the trail of botnets, Trojans and other malware used to steal financial assets and intellectual property have a new resource, a Microsoft facility that it will share with others pursuing the same goals.

Microsoft Cybercrime Center includes experts who find malicious activity then provide the legal means to take down the infrastructure that supports it.

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Microsoft cybercrime lab

The center is the headquarters for the Digital Crimes Unit (DCU), which is the name for the newly merged DCU, which chased botnets and malware, and its Intellectual Property Crimes Unit (IPCU), which went after software pirates, says Bonnie MacNaughton, assistant general counsel for the DCU.

The consolidation made sense because investigations by the IP Crimes Unit often turned up information valuable to cybercrime investigations, she says.

The Cybercrime center occupies the first floor of a building on Microsoft’s Redmond, Wash., campus with about 17,000 square feet of space that includes two cyberforensics labs, a situation room, a briefing area and a separate and secure space where partners can set up shop to work on cases in conjunction with the Microsoft team.

MacNaughton says those partners may be invited by Microsoft to work on cases it has initiated or they may ask to be invited because they think Microsoft has common interest in something they are working on.

The facility provides tools for rooting out online criminal groups, including an application called SitePrint that detects common patterns among the characteristics of seemingly unrelated criminal Web sites, she says. These patterns enable investigators to deduce common ownership and control of these sites and to go after the syndicates they represent. That way the unit can take down an organization rather than playing Whac-A-Mole with individual sites, she says.

DCU uses other tools to track down this type of pattern to trace illegal activity to its core in an effort to maximize the impact of takedowns that it carries out, she says.

The unit has a strategy to go after the payment systems these criminal syndicates use to gather the money they steal. MacNaughton says the unit tracked payments to a range of illegal sites to just a dozen payment accounts, then worked with the legitimate organizations such as PayPal or Visa to cut off the payments. “We shut down their ability to profit,” she says.

DCU helps fight the proliferation of child pornography on the Internet with technology called PhotoDNA, which hashes pornographic images and identifies hash signatures that can be compared automatically to hashes of images found on the Internet. It doesn’t require a person to view the images. Facebook, for example, uses PhotoDNA to detect child pornography images uploaded to its accounts so it can remove them.

The original DCU, before its merger with the IP Crimes Unit, has been credited with crippling Waledac, Rustock, Kelihos, Zeus, Nitol and Citadel botnets.

Last year DCU had a dedicated staff of 11, but with the IPCU merger that has been expanded to about 100. In addition to the Cybercrime Center, the unit has 12 other crime labs around the world that are spokes to the center’s hub.

DCU’s legal team has applied laws – some of which were written before cybercrime existed – to crimes committed on the Internet. The team’s successes have resulted in court orders that have let Microsoft seize servers and control of domains that are used to support criminal activities.

The idea for the center stemmed from a visit Microsoft general counsel Brad Smith made to South Korea’s national cybercrime headquarters. He saw a mismatch between the broad experience of Microsoft’s experts and the tools available to them. The center attempts to remedy that, Microsoft says.

Tim Greene covers Microsoft and unified communications for Network World and writes the Mostly Microsoft blog. Reach him at tgreene@nww.com and follow him on Twitter@Tim_Greene.

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