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Microsoft takes on 'prosecutor' duties, targets online crime

It may surprise readers to learn that in a recent police raid of a Pennsylvania office building, attorneys and technical support employees of Microsoft were on hand to take part. While the raid was led by U.S. marshals and authorized by a search warrant issued by a federal judge, it was at the behest of Microsoft, which in recent years has taken an aggressive approach toward those it accuses of operating botnets, or computer networks that use viruses to steal personal information from people's home computers.

During the raid, the workers seized equipment and other evidence that Microsoft plans to use in civil lawsuits against the alleged Internet criminals, who are called bot-herders. The company sues the defendants and obtains orders to take over ownership of websites and computers -- without the defendants' knowledge.

Microsoft says it is pursuing the civil suits instead of waiting for law enforcement agents to bring charges against those it accuses of bot-herding. Doing so may be difficult, since many operators appear to live in other countries. A senior attorney in Microsoft's digital crimes unit acknowledged that likely the case for the botnet they are currently investigating, and that the owners of the raided offices were not part of a criminal scheme.

As a private corporation, Microsoft does not have the power to level criminal punishments. But the company is using tools of the government's prosecutorial power, such as search warrants, in its civil suit. Also, any evidence gathered during the suit might be used in any parallel criminal prosecutions.

Source: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, "Microsoft Raids Tackle Internet Crime," Nick Wingfield and Nicole Perlroth, March 27, 2012

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