Microsoft spends millions of dollars each year developing security products that it gives to law enforcement agencies, knowing that it may not make any money directly in return. The work is part of the company's efforts to be a good corporate citizen, although there are also some business benefits from the work it does.
The decision to make such investments was never a foregone conclusion. Brad Smith, Microsoft's general counsel, remembers a meeting with Canadian police three years ago when they asked him to spend more money to ramp up the Child Exploitation Tracking System (CETS), a software program for hunting down child predators.
"I went into the meeting thinking that we could not make the substantial investment to take this project forward," Smith said on Monday.
But when police showed him what they were investigating -- images of children, some of them infants, being abused -- he changed his mind. "I soon realized that we couldn't possibly bear to say no," he said.
Smith went back to Microsoft and scraped together an initial US$2 million for the project, and the company has invested $10 million in it to date. Microsoft won't say how much it has spent overall on developing such forensic tools for law enforcement.
Since its creation, CETS has helped rescue 138 children, according to Smith. The program was developed jointly by Microsoft Canada, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Toronto Police Service.
Fighting child abuse is only one of the projects undertaken by Microsoft's Internet Safety Enforcement team. The group of about 35 people works closely with law enforcement agencies around the world, providing software and information that can help fight a wide array of Internet crimes including phishing and botnets.
Smith and others spoke at a three-day conference Microsoft is hosting for law enforcement officials at its Redmond, Washington, headquarters, inviting U.S. and international police, prosecutors and representatives from agencies like the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Microsoft has been hosting the conferences, which invite feedback from the law enforcement agents, since 2006, Smith said.
"It's in Microsoft's interest for people to have a safe and healthy computing experience," said Aaron Kornblum, a senior attorney with Microsoft's Internet Safety Enforcement division. "This is a part of our broader corporate citizenship."
While the team may help with Microsoft's citizenry efforts, it was originally created in about 2001 after the company saw that a string of damaging viruses was affecting its software, said Tim Cranton, associate general counsel for Microsoft's Worldwide Internet Safety Programs.
Today, Microsoft sees its efforts to help police the Internet as being important to its future as it starts to offer more Internet-based services. "We realized that when we look at the opportunities on the Net and where we want to go in terms of software plus services … for that to happen there needs to be a more trusted Internet," Cranton said. "People have to feel more comfortable about the security and privacy of their information on the Net."
Microsoft has also developed other tools for law enforcement use. One, which the company won't even name because it says that doing so might help the bad guys thwart it, helps agents track down phishers. The tool helped the Sûreté du Québec break up a global botnet network earlier this year, said Captain Frederick Gaudreau, who heads the provincial police force's cybercrime unit.
Last summer, Microsoft introduced another software tool called Computer Online Forensic Evidence Extractor (COFEE). It fits on a USB drive and helps law enforcement agents find important information quickly on criminals' computers.
Along with the custom-built software, law enforcement agencies use off-the-shelf products that Microsoft donates for their use. Interpol uses Groove, for example, a collaboration product that lets people work together across different organizations.
The software has allowed Interpol to operate more efficiently, said Jean-Michel Louboutin, executive director of police services for Interpol. "Microsoft for several years has been a valuable partner for Interpol," he said.
In a recent case, law enforcement agents discovered a child predator in Asia and, within an hour, agents in different parts of the world used Groove to collaborate in a way that allowed them to connect the individual to hundreds of megabytes of child pornography stored in Europe, Smith said. Law enforcement was able to arrest the man.
The conference continues through Wednesday, although the remaining days are closed to reporters.