WASHINGTON, D.C. – Attorney General John Ashcroft announced today the most far-reaching and aggressive enforcement action ever undertaken against organizations involved in illegal intellectual property piracy over the Internet. Beginning yesterday morning, law enforcement from 10 countries and the United States conducted over 120 searches worldwide to dismantle some of the most well-known and prolific online piracy organizations.
“Intellectual property theft is a global problem that hurts economies around the world. To be effective, we must respond globally,” Attorney General Ashcroft said. “In the past 24 hours, working closely with our foreign law enforcement counterparts, we have moved aggressively to strike at the very core of the international online piracy world.”
Operation Fastlink is the culmination of four separate undercover investigations simultaneously being conducted by the FBI, coordinated by the FBI Cyber Division, and the U.S. Department of Justice, coordinated by the Computer Crimes and Intellectual Property Section (CCIPS) of the Criminal Division. As a result of Fastlink, over 120 total searches have been executed in the past 24 hours in 27 states and in 10 foreign countries. Foreign searches were conducted in Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Hungary, Israel, the Netherlands, Singapore, Sweden as well as Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Operation Fastlink is the largest multi-national law enforcement effort ever directed at online piracy. Nearly 100 individuals worldwide have been identified by the investigation to date, many of whom are the leaders or high-level members of various international piracy organizations. As the investigations continue, additional targets will be identified and pursued.
“The amount of international coordination and cooperation in this effort is unprecedented and will send a clear and unmistakable message to those individuals and organizations dedicated to piracy that they will no longer be protected by geographic boundaries,” Attorney General Ashcroft said. “We are committed to combating this theft and will pursue these thieves regardless of their location.”
In addition to attacking piracy globally, Operation Fastlink struck at all facets of the illegal software, game, movie, and music trade online, which is commonly referred to as the “warez scene.” The investigations focused on individuals and organizations, known as “warez” release groups, that specialize in the Internet distribution of pirated materials. Release groups are the first-providers – the original source for most of the pirated works traded or distributed online. Once a release group prepares a stolen work for distribution, the material is distributed in minutes to secure, top-level warez servers and made available to a select clientele. From there, within a matter of hours, the pirated works are further distributed throughout the world, ending up on public channels on IRC and peer-to-peer file sharing networks accessible to anyone with Internet access.
The top release groups are hierarchical, highly structured organizations with leadership positions that control day-to-day operations, recruit new members and manage the group’s various computer archive sites. These groups exist solely to engage in piracy and compete with each other to be the first to place a newly pirated work onto the Internet – often before the work is legitimately available to the public. Highly sophisticated technological measures are employed by the groups to shield their illegal activity from victims and law enforcement.
The release groups targeted by Fastlink specialize in the distribution of all types of pirated works including utility and application software, movies, music and games. Among the groups targeted by Fastlink are well-known organizations such as Fairlight, Kalisto, Echelon, Class and Project X, all of which specialized in pirating computer games, and music release groups such as APC. The enforcement action announced today is expected to dismantle many of these international warez syndicates and significantly impact the illicit operations of others.
Operation Fastlink also resulted in the seizure of more than 200 computers, including 30 computer servers that functioned as storage and distribution hubs. These servers collectively contain hundreds of thousands of copies of pirated works. One of the storage and distribution servers seized in the United States reportedly contained 65,000 separate pirated titles. Other servers seized, so-called “elite” sites, contain the most highly coveted and valuable “new releases,” many of which were distributed to the warez scene before they are commercially available to the general public. Although access to these elite servers is limited, authorized users frequently provide the first copies of new releases that are traded and distributed online throughout the world within hours of their initial illegal release. Conservative estimates of the value of the pirated works seized easily exceed $50 million. Conservative projections of the losses to industry attributable to these distribution hubs are in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
Operation Fastlink has been conducted under the direction of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and agents from 30 separate field offices across the nation were involved in the enforcement action. The investigation has been coordinated with the Justice Department’s CCIPS Section and federal prosecutors from 42 separate United States Attorneys’ Offices nationwide.
The ongoing investigations were assisted by various intellectual property trade associations, including the Business Software Alliance, the Entertainment Software Association, the Motion Picture Association of America and the Recording Industry Association of America.