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Digital Crimes and Public Safety

13 March 2012 | Bill Harmon, Associate General Counsel, Digital Crimes Unit

Cybercrime has evolved dramatically in recent years, from simple spam and fraud scams to incredibly sophisticated threats that pose a substantive threat to public safety, both online and off. Luckily, with new approaches being advanced across the public and private sector, cooperative disruption efforts are leading a promising shift in the fight against digital crime.

I lead the Microsoft Digital Crimes Unit (DCU), a proud sponsor and participant in the Worldwide Public Safety Symposium being held at Microsoft this week. We are a worldwide team of lawyers, investigators, technical analysts and other specialists working to transform the fight against digital crime through partnerships and legal and technical breakthroughs that aim to destroy the way cybercriminals operate. The DCU is a unique team in the tech industry, focused on making the world safer by disrupting some of the most difficult cybercrime threats facing society today, including technology-facilitated child sexual exploitation and malicious software crimes such as botnet-driven internet attacks. With cooperation across industry, law enforcement, academia, government and NGOs worldwide, DCU aims to put cybercriminals out of business and help the global Internet community protect itself and thrive.

Our work is based on a fundamental belief that effective disruption of cybercrime is possible and attainable through collective action across public and private sector. With the knowledge that most cybercriminals are in operation for a 'profit' of some kind (whether that profit is monetary gain or personal gratification), we believe that the solution to cybercrime is basically an economic one: Drive up the costs of operation and you take away the profits fueling cybercriminal activity, thereby encouraging cybercriminals to find something else to do with their time. This model has proven to be effective in many areas of crime throughout history and cybercrime is no exception. That focus on making cybercrime a less valuable proposition for criminals - whether through increased costs of doing business or the fear of being identified and caught - is a fundamental weakness the majority of cybercriminals share, which can be exploited to help make the world, both digital and actual, safer for everyone.

In the last two years, working through civil legal systems and partnering with security researchers and industry leaders, Microsoft has coordinated the takedown of three major botnets, Waledac, Kelihos and Rustock. Once one of the single largest sources of spam worldwide, Rustock was in particular known for counterfeit pharmaceutical spam. Counterfeit pharmaceuticals spread by such scams, produced in dirty facilities with suspect ingredients, are not just a cybercrime threat but a serious public health risk, illustrating the real world consequences of digital wrongdoing. Through an initiative codenamed Project MARS (Microsoft Active Response for Security), we work together with our partners to take down botnets and share threat intelligence data to help the community better understand and mitigate such threats. For example, by making information and tools available to ISPs and CERTs worldwide for Waledac and Rustock, together we have been able to significantly reduce the global footprints of those botnets and help victims regain control of their malware-infected computers. Law enforcement is also increasingly conducting similar actions, helping catch cybercriminals and take away their money-making infrastructure.

Even more tragic than the reality of malicious software crimes, the online world has also become a haven for child predators to share images of horrific child sexual abuse in relative safety and anonymity or even use technology for the sale of children for sex. Law enforcement, governments and NGOs worldwide are doing tremendous work to combat this problem, but we believe technology companies, through technologies like PhotoDNA and other proactive efforts, can play an important role.  DCU is also taking what we've learned in the fight against child pornography and working with academia, law enforcement and the anti-trafficking community to explore new disruptive opportunities to combat child sex trafficking.

Together, we can turn the tables on cybercrime.

For more information about DCU, I encourage you to visit the new www.microsoft.com/dcu site launched today. I also welcome anyone looking to stay on top of ongoing developments in digital crime to check out our newsroom or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

Have a comment or opinion on this post or a question for the author? Let me know @MicrosoftPSNS or email us at safetyanddefense@microsoft.com.

Bill Harmon
Associate General Counsel, Digital Crimes Unit

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About the Author

Bill Harmon | Associate General Counsel, Digital Crimes Unit

Bill Harmon leads a worldwide team of lawyers, investigators and technical analysts to transform the fight against digital crime through partnerships and legal and technical breakthroughs that destroy the way cybercriminals operate.