The global nature of the Internet is posing new challenges to law enforcement agencies like the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation. In response, the FBI is reaching out to new partners, both in the private sector and in the international community, to help fight online identity thieves, computer hijackers, and other digital desperadoes known as "botherders." The ongoing effort has been dubbed "Operation Bot Roast."
The problem begins when criminal botherders use "botnets" to take remote command and control of other people's computers. The FBI reports that most owners of the compromised computers don't even know their computers are being used to facilitate other crimes, such as denial of service attacks, phishing, click fraud, identity theft, and the mass distribution of spam and spyware. Because of their widely distributed capabilities, the FBI says, botnets are a growing threat to national security, as well as the national information infrastructure, and our economy as a whole.
In a telephone interview with us on Thursday, following announcement of the FBI's preliminary results in Operation Bot Roast, Deputy Assistant Director Shawn Henry of the FBI's Cyber Division stressed the value of the high-tech partnerships.
"The FBI has been very pleased and appreciative of the cooperation and assistance that it has received from private companies during Operation Bot Roast," Henry said. "This is an issue that affects them as well, and they have been very helpful."
Henry added that the FBI had received extensive cross-border cooperation with law enforcement agencies in other countries, both for investigations that originated in the United States, and those launched elsewhere.
Global Problem, New Partners
Because of the global nature of the Internet, Henry said, no country or company is immune from the risks posed by botherders and other types of hackers. As a result, companies and governments that might otherwise be reluctant to work together are finding ways to collaborate.
"There's another ongoing investigation," Henry said, "the details of which I can't discuss right now, that has led a number of business competitors to share information and data with the FBI and each other in an effort to respond to a particular threat they are all facing."
In its press release yesterday, the FBI singled out Microsoft for its work on the botherder issue, along with the Botnet Task Force, an international private-public partnership launched by Microsoft in 2004. In another sign of the growing level of international cooperation on this issue, the Botnet Task Force is now working with Interpol to train law enforcement agents in the field.
Plea for Personal Responsibility
Henry reiterated that one of the chief reasons that the FBI announced its preliminary results was to raise the public profile of the botnet issue, and encourage people to take the basic steps needed to protect their computers: antivirus software, firewalls, strong passwords, and good e-mail and download behavior.
"This is an issue that individuals need to take seriously," Henry said, "because a lot of consumers don't realize that their computer can be or has been hijacked and is doing harm to someone else. It's not enough to simply bring the computer home and start surfing the Internet. Consumers have to learn how to protect their computers and make sure that their software is up to date."