Law Enforcement At RSAC: Collaboration Is Key To Online Crime Fighting

Agencies and investigators are reaching out across jurisdictions and international borders to vanquish spammers, botnet operators, and worse.

5 Min Read

RSA CONFERENCE – San Francisco – An IP address that appeared to be German. A proxy, in front of a proxy, in front of another proxy. Then, after six months of investigation, plenty of back and forth with other international agencies and officials, and lots of dead-ends, the German federal police finally got their hands on the server and database powering the illegal sale of online access credentials, "a black Amazon," according to Mirko Manske, team lead, cyber intelligence ops for Bundeskriminalamt (BKA).

Except that wasn't the end of it. The server drive was encrypted, Manske says.

Relying on a network of collaboration that included a university to decrypt the drive, plus coordination with US and EU law enforcement officials, and data from the National Cyber-Forensics and Training Alliance. Collectively, they were able to pull the plug on the nefarious marketplace, which had 10,000 members buying and selling stolen credentials using Bitcoin and altcoin.

"We joined up with FBI and Europol, dividing up 180 suspects" from multiple countries, Manske told RSA attendees last week. He spoke as part of a larger session addressing law enforcement's increasing collaboration with other agencies, reaching out across jurisdictions and even international borders to vanquish spammers, botnet operators, and worse. The unambiguous message: Collaboration works, and in fact, may be the only way for law enforcement to shut down bad actors who can change identities, servers, and locations at will.

"Cops can't do it alone," Manske says. "If it had been just us, I wouldn't have known how to handle the workload. And without collaboration, I never would have been able to solve this case," he adds. "Stop hiding what you're doing and start sharing what you're working on," he urges other enforcement officials.

Taking down the infamous Avalanche network would have been impossible without broad-based collaboration, according to Keith Mularski, a supervisory special agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, another RSA panelist.

Avalanche, "a bullet-proof, criminal services hosting service" for malware propagation and money laundering operating since 2010, was responsible for infecting as many as 500,000 computers daily, the FBI estimates.

On the day of the takedown in late November 2016, the FBI coordinated with counterparts and private-sector participants in 40 countries including Sweden, the Netherlands, France, Canada, Ukraine, Germany, Finland, and Australia, among others.

The FBI and its partners worked with top-level domain registrars around the world to sinkhole approximately all the compromised domains in Avalanche, Mularksi estimates. "We had to make sure we got all of them, otherwise if we left one, the bad guys could take it back," and start reconstituting the whole operation, he adds.

The partners in the Avalanche takedown also performed victim identification and remediation; the Shadowserver Foundation helped identify the IP addresses so that ISPs could clean the machines. The net result from the internal cooperation: 50 servers seized worldwide and 830,000 malicious domains sinkholed, Mularski reports.

It took almost 12 years to find and capture Sergey "Fly" Vovnenko, according to James Meehan, deputy special agent in charge, US Secret Service. Among Vovnenko's many crimes were selling compromised payment card data, offering hackers for hire on elite forums, and running a botnet used to attack multiple companies. In real life, Vovnenko tried to frame security columnist Brian Krebs by sending heroin to Krebs' home.

Investigators identified Vovnenko's residence in Naples, Italy, in 2014; the Secret Service, the US Justice Department, and Italian authorities then spent several weeks coordinating the arrest operations.

"Collaboration is the key, having people on the ground who can help us," Meehan tells the RSA audience. "If I need help, I know who to pick up the phone and talk to." He also credits the Electronic Crimes Task Force -- started in the US in the 1980s and now with offices in Rome, London, and Paris – with making international collaboration easier.

Meehan said that online criminals were communicating more efficiently than law enforcement was, frequently on encrypted Jabber channels. Behind the scenes, an international search warrant could take 6-8 months to secure, allowing for translation and submission of legal documents. "Now we're working with prosecutors in other countries where we can just make a phone call," he says. "There's the trust factor now, where before they wouldn't do anything til they got the paperwork."

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About the Author(s)

Terry Sweeney, Contributing Editor

Terry Sweeney is a Los Angeles-based writer and editor who has covered technology, networking, and security for more than 20 years. He was part of the team that started Dark Reading and has been a contributor to The Washington Post, Crain's New York Business, Red Herring, Network World, InformationWeek and Mobile Sports Report.

In addition to information security, Sweeney has written extensively about cloud computing, wireless technologies, storage networking, and analytics. After watching successive waves of technological advancement, he still prefers to chronicle the actual application of these breakthroughs by businesses and public sector organizations.

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