An international crackdown on a malicious computer program has led to the arrest of nearly 90 people worldwide, 17 of the arrests took place in the UK.

The investigation and subsequent operation was led by the FBI, targeting a software known as ‘BlackShades’, which is thought to have infected more than £500,000 computers since 2010. The specialist software has the ability to remotely control computers and webcams, often used to obtain money via ransom.

The National Crime Agency (NCA) has stated that the investigation was focused upon the developers and prolific users of the software. It is reported that the NCA worked closely with the FBI and the operation to ensure the arrests of 15 suspects in England and two in Scotland. The NCA has also stated that its investigators consider there to have been around 200,000 username/password combinations from victims across the world may have been obtained by prolific users of BlackShades in the UK.

The software is designed to infect computers when the computer user clicks on external links that are supposed to lead the user to pictures, videos or other items of interest often through social networking sites or emails. Upon completion of the installation of the software, the BlackShades user will have access to and download personal information, in some cases, the BlackShades user may have been able to take photographs of the computer user with the webcam installed or integrated. BlackShades software allows its user to access this information and take control secretly. Often the BlackShades user would use the obtained information or photographs to blackmail the owner of the infected computer. It was confirmed by officials that the software could be, and frequently was, used to send out ransom notes to the victim computer’s user informing them that they had lost the control of their computer. The ransom notes would often be accompanied by private information or photographs extracted from the user’s comput
er. The investigation and subsequent operation is said to have commenced following the FBI’s discovery of a list of BlackShades customers after their arrest of two BlackShades developers.

BlackShades was advertised on forums for computer hackers and copies of the software were selling for around £23 on websites maintained by its developers. Since its creation in 2010, it is thought that several thousand people from a number of different countries have purchased the software, which is believed to have generated over £200,000 from sales alone.

It is alleged by the FBI that over 500,000 computers have been infected by the software, affecting computer users in more than 100 countries. Since the investigation commenced there is increasing evidence to suggest that the software may have been linked to the malware attacks on Syrian dissidents in 2012 as well as several attempts that were made to steal data from numerous French organisations.

BlackShades was described as a “frightening form of cybercrime” by Preet Bharara, US Attorney for the Southern District of New York at a press conference. Mr Bharara also stated that BlackShades capabilities were “sophisticated and its invasiveness breath-taking”.

The NCA have warned those who have downloaded the BlackShades software, even if they have not yet deployed it, were known to the agency. Over the course of the operation, over 300 properties were searched and as a result over 1000 data storage devices were confiscated.

At Farleys we have a specialist team of criminal defence solicitors who specialise in serious crime and can provide advice and representation 24 hours a day, 7 days a week on all areas of serious crime. If you have been accused of involvement in relation to a cybercrime offence, or indeed serious crime in any capacity, it is vital that you speak to a criminal defence solicitor at the earliest opportunity. Early advice is often crucial. For 24 hour advice via our emergency crime line, call 01254 606050 or email us.

By Sian Hall