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Microsoft goes bot herder hunting in streets of Russia

Rustock operators on notice

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Microsoft is taking its campaign against digital crime to the streets of Russia, placing ads in newspapers in Moscow and St. Petersburg in an attempt to track down the operators of the notorious Rustock spam botnet.

The software giant in March delivered a devastating blow to Rustock that employed novel legal and technical measures to completely dismantle the five-year-old spam monster. At its peak, Rustock infected about 1 million computers and delivered some 30 billion junk messages a day, mostly for counterfeit or unlicensed pharmaceuticals.

In an update published Monday, Richard Boscovich, a senior attorney for the Microsoft Digital Crimes Unit, said his team had no plans to stop now. Instead, they are in the midst of a 30-day ad campaign to track down the people behind Rustock, who based on evidence gathered so far, are believed to have operated out of Russia.

“To effectively reduce the global volume of cybercrime, we need to successfully deter the criminals who seek to profit from botnets,” Boscovich wrote. “To prevent future botherders from hijacking computers to spread malware and come-ons for counterfeit pharmaceuticals, we need to hold today's botherders accountable.”

The quarter-page ads recently began appearing in The Delovoy Petersburg and The Moscow News and will run for 30 days. In addition to pressuring the operators, the ads will satisfy Microsoft's legal obligation to make a good-faith attempt to contact the owners of IP addresses and domain names that were confiscated as part of the Rustock takedown. The ads say when and where future court proceedings will take place in the case so the owners can present their side of events.

“Although history suggests that the people associated with the IP addresses and domain names connected with the Rustock botnet are unlikely to come forward in response to a court summons, we hope the defendants in this case will present themselves,” Boscovich said. “If they do not, however, we will continue to pursue this case, including possibly within the Russian judicial system, if necessary.”

The ads declare that Microsoft has filed a lawsuit accusing people doing business under the name “Cosma2k” with running an operation that unlawfully intruded on third-party computers.

“You must appear in this case or the Plaintiff will win automatically,” the ads warn.

Microsoft's persistence here is to be admired. For years the offshore operators of botnets and other internet-based crime ventures have acted with almost absolute impunity, knowing there's often little US-based authorities can do to track them down. With any luck, the ads will send a message that it won't be so easy to hide in the future. (Ads that name and shame known operators might be a good next step, but that doesn't appear to be what's motivating Microsoft in this case.)

In documents recently filed in the case, Microsoft attorneys said they've exhausted other means of contacting the defendants, who are still listed as unknown John Does in the court docket. We won't hold our breath waiting for response to the ads, but we'll be watching just in case. ®

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