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FBI Botnet Bust Hinged On Public-Private Partnership

International, industry collaboration key to takedown of $14 million click fraud botnet operators.
Policymakers and government officials have used the term "public-private partnerships" as a way to fight online threats so frequently that it has become code for doing nothing. Yet the recently announced Operation Ghost Click shows that such teamwork is necessary to take on cybercriminals and more advanced threats online.

On Wednesday, the FBI announced a massive investigation in conjunction with international law enforcement agencies, private industry, and nongovernment organizations, which led to the charging of seven Estonian and Russian citizens for a widespread click fraud scheme that had infected more than 4 million computers and netted the group more than $14 million.

The group, operating under various corporate names including Rove Digital, allegedly infected victims' computers with DNSChanger -- malware that changed the systems' domain-name servers, redirecting requests for website addresses through a network of criminal-controlled hosts. For four years, the group allegedly used the malware and servers to create false advertising clicks to businesses that paid affiliate fees, defrauding the firms. The Estonian police arrested the six Estonian nationals on Tuesday, while the sole Russian suspect remained at large.

"With the flip of a switch, the FBI and our partners dismantled the Rove criminal enterprise," said Janice K. Fedarcyk, the FBI's assistant director-in-charge, in a statement. "Thanks to the collective effort across the U.S. and in Estonia, six leaders of the criminal enterprise have been arrested and numerous servers operated by the criminal organization have been disabled."

The scheme required massive cooperation to investigate and track the people perpetrating the fraud. The FBI worked with the Estonian Police and Border Guard, the Dutch National Police, and NASA's Office of the Inspector General. In the private sector, the law enforcement agency relied on resources at Georgia Tech University, the Internet Systems Consortium, security firm Mandiant, anti-spam group Spamhaus, security intelligence firm Team Cymru, antivirus company Trend Micro, the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and members of an ad hoc group of subject matter experts known as the DNS Changer Working Group.

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Elizabeth Montalbano, Contributor, Dark Reading