Microsoft’s cybercrime unit files case
When Microsoft opened its sleek new Cybercrime Centre last month, the company said it was designed to showcase some of its latest technologies and to bring together different units that work on fighting everything from malware to intellectual-property theft.
Now, Microsoft is filing its first case emerging from the work of the Cybercrime Centre team.
It’s now filed a civil lawsuit in the US District Court of Western Washington against Sichuan Changhong Electric Co, a China-based manufacturer of household appliances such as refrigerators and TVs.
Microsoft accuses Changhong of using product keys – a series of numbers and letters that a user enters into a computer in order to activate Microsoft software – that were stolen from organisations that had legitimately purchased licences for the software.
Those organisations include a US public university, a US public-school district, a US-based engineering company and an Asia-based semiconductor manufacturer, all unidentified in the suit.
Microsoft says it doesn’t know how those product keys were stolen and believes that will be made clear during the discovery process.
Microsoft contends that, since 2011, Changhong’s employees, contractors or other agents have activated numerous copies of Microsoft software products using stolen product-activation keys.
Representatives of Changhong could not immediately be reached for comment.
Microsoft believes it’s the first time a company has used the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act to go after those allegedly stealing software product keys. The law prohibits unauthorised access to a protected computer system such as those used in interstate commerce.
The level of proof required under that law to show product keys were stolen would not have been possible even a few years ago, Microsoft says.
It’s now possible, the company says, because of technological advances used in the field of cyberforensics – the gathering and analysis of digital evidence and data to prove cases.
The cybercrime team first got suspicious about eight months ago when they were looking into patterns involving a known stolen product key.
They traced the key back to an educational institution in the US that had legitimately purchased licences to use Microsoft’s software.
The cyberforensics team then plotted onto maps where that organisation’s licences were being activated. Those maps showed big spikes in activation attempts in places far from the US.
They then started looking for “a pattern under the map,” said Zoe Krumm, a member of the cyberforensics team.
Microsoft’s analysis showed, for instance, that within short periods of time, computers controlled by Changhong had tried to activate different product keys for certain Microsoft programs, such as Office or Project. Some of the attempts failed, and the user kept trying until he or she succeeded with a key that Microsoft had not yet blocked.
“That’s what I’m looking for,” Krumm said. “They try multiple keys within minutes of each other until they find a pass.”
Microsoft says in its lawsuit that its analysis also showed the activation attempts took place on “numerous devices controlled by Changhong” during regular business hours in China.
The data collected, along with data visualisation tools and the work of data scientists and investigators, “allowed us to know when a company like Changhong has attempted over 2,000 times to activate unlicensed software with over 200 product keys,” said Matt Lundy, Microsoft’s assistant general counsel for the digital-crimes unit.
While the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act has been used commonly in cases involving malware, “there’s a good reason” the law has most likely not been used in stolen software-product key cases before, said Rob McKenna, former Washington state attorney general who’s now a partner specialising in technology and intellectual property with law firm Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe.
“It’s the proof problem – collecting the evidence and documenting that a computer used stolen licence keys to gain unauthorised access to Microsoft servers ” said McKenna, who is not working on this case but has been briefed on it by Microsoft. He also works with Microsoft on other cases.
Microsoft is seeking a jury trial and a judgment barring Changhong from using product keys that it hasn’t purchased to access Microsoft’s servers in the future.