A customer in Shenzhen, China, took a new laptop out of its box and booted it up for the first time. But as the screen lit up, the computer began taking on a life of its own. The machine, triggered by a virus hidden in its hard drive, began searching across the Internet for another computer.
The laptop, supposedly in pristine, superfast, direct-from-the-factory condition, had instantly become part of an illegal, global network capable of attacking websites, looting bank accounts and stealing personal data.
For years, online investigators have warned consumers about the dangers of opening or downloading emailed files from unknown or suspicious sources. Now, they say malicious software and computer code could be lurking on computers before the Bubble Wrap even comes off.
The shopper in this case was part of a team of Microsoft researchers in China investigating the sale of counterfeit software. They received a sudden introduction to malware called Nitol. The incident was revealed in court documents unsealed Thursday in a federal court in Virginia. The records describe a new front in a legal campaign against cybercrime being waged by the maker of the Windows operating system, which is the biggest target for viruses.
The documents are part of a computer fraud lawsuit filed by Microsoft against a Web domain registered to a Chinese businessman named Peng Yong. The company says the domain is a major hub for illicit Internet activity, home base for Nitol and more than 500 other types of malware, which makes it the largest single repository of infected software that Microsoft officials have encountered.
Peng, the owner of an Internet services firm, said he was not aware of the Microsoft suit. He denied the allegations and said his company does not tolerate improper conduct on the domain, 3322.org. Three other unidentified individuals accused by Microsoft of establishing and operating the Nitol network are also named in the suit.
What emerges most vividly from the court records and interviews with Microsoft officials is a disturbing picture of how vulnerable Internet users have become, in part because of weaknesses in computer supply chains. To increase their profit margins, less reputable computer manufacturers and retailers may use counterfeit copies of popular software products to build machines more cheaply.
The investigation by Microsoft's digital crimes unit began in August 2011 as a study into the sale and distribution of counterfeit versions of Windows. Microsoft employees in China bought 20 new computers from retailers and took them back to a home with an Internet connection.
They found forged versions of Windows on all the machines and malware already installed on four. The one with Nitol, however, was the most alarming because the malware was active.