The DCU’s hybrid technical and legal approach to chipping away at cybercrime is still unusual, but as the cybercriminal ecosystem has evolved—alongside its overlaps with state-backed hacking campaigns—the idea of employing creative legal strategies in cyberspace has become more mainstream. In recent years, for example, Meta-owned WhatsApp and Apple both took on the notorious spyware maker NSO Group with lawsuits.
Still, the DCU’s particular progression was the result of Microsoft’s unique dominance during the rise of the consumer internet. As the group’s mission came into focus while dealing with threats from the late 2000s and early 2010s—like the widespread Conficker worm—the DCU’s unorthodox and aggressive approach drew criticism at times for its fallout and potential impacts on legitimate businesses and websites.
“There’s simply no other company that takes such a direct approach to taking on scammers,” WIRED wrote in a story about the DCU from October 2014. “That makes Microsoft rather effective, but also a little bit scary, observers say.”
Richard Boscovich, the DCU’s assistant general counsel and a former assistant US attorney in Florida’s Southern District, told WIRED in 2014 that it was frustrating for people within Microsoft to see malware like Conficker rampage across the web and feel like the company could improve the defenses of its products, but not do anything to directly deal with the actors behind the crimes. That dilemma spurred the DCU’s innovations and continues to do so.
“What’s impacting people? That’s what we get asked to take on, and we’ve developed a muscle to change and to take on new types of crime,” says Zoe Krumm, the DCU’s director of analytics. In the mid-2000s, Krumm says, Brad Smith, now Microsoft’s vice chair and president, was a driving force in turning the company’s attention toward the threat of email spam.
“The DCU has always been a bit of an incubation team. I remember all of a sudden, it was like, ‘We have to do something about spam.’ Brad comes to the team and he’s like, ‘OK, guys, let’s put together a strategy.’ I’ll never forget that it was just, ‘Now we’re going to focus here.’ And that has continued, whether it be moving into the malware space, whether it be tech support fraud, online child exploitation, business email compromise.”