Software pirating ring cracked by local FBI

February 4, 2000


Chicago FBI agents say they have broken up a worldwide ring of software thieves--called the "Pirates with Attitude"--who were distributing thousands of programs, including the yet-unreleased Windows 2000. A tip from an informant in Chicago led to the breakup of "one of the most sophisticated and longest-standing" piracy and hacking rings, according to a complaint filed Thursday in federal court in Chicago.

The FBI used the informant's access codes to break into the group's Web site and obtain a roster of the suspects.

Robin Rothberg was arrested Thursday at his home in New Chelmsford, Mass., near Boston. Federal officials say he was a founder and key member of the ring, which evaded law enforcement for eight years. He is charged with conspiring to infringe copyright. Three days before Christmas, Rothberg somehow got a copy of Windows 2000--the latest update of the operating system, scheduled to go on sale next month--and uploaded it to the Internet, according to the criminal complaint.

Rothberg, an employee of NEC Technologies, accessed the group's Internet site through a Zenith Data Systems computer server in Buffalo Grove, the complaint states. At least two other users allegedly pirated and distributed software through servers in Chicago, at MegsInet Inc. on West Ohio and at Computer Engineers Inc. on North Wacker.

Members of the group downloaded software in exchange for uploading other programs, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Lisa Griffin. They might then give away or sell that software. "It was a barter system, with the upshot being that the site itself contained an incredible amount of software," Griffin said.

FBI spokesman Ross Rice said the investigation is continuing. Authorities do not yet know the size of the pirating ring, or the monetary value of the thousands of stolen software titles allegedly distributed from the group's WAREZ site, called Sentinel.

WAREZ is a term for an Internet site that distributes pirated versions of software. The Sentinel site was launched in April 1996 and was set up so that only authorized users could access it; it was not available to the general public.

The group's members were "carefully screened to minimize the risk of detection" and were given specific roles, such as "crackers," who stripped away the copy protection often embedded in commercial software; "couriers," who transferred large volumes of software files from other pirating sites, and "suppliers," who brought in programs from major software companies.

Rothberg, according to the complaint, stole at least nine other major Microsoft programs between June and October 1999. Microsoft did not respond Thursday to requests to comment on the case.

An industry group, the Business Software Alliance, has said software theft costs 33,000 jobs and $11 billion a year.

FBI nabs Chelmsford man in software piracy ring
Friday, February 4, 2000

Federal officials say they've captured a leader of a worldwide band of e-pirates who surf the cyberseas in search of software plunder. Robin Rothberg, 32, of Chelmsford, is a founding member of Pirates with Attitudes, an international crew that steals popular titles from powerful companies and gives them away to its members for free, the FBI says.

The group, snared by FBI agents in Chicago, is sophisticated and devious enough to have sought after software before it hits the shelves, authorities said. In December, FBI agents found Windows 2000 - which still hasn't been released - and Office 2000 premium, a program given to select customers for testing purposes. In all, agents found enough software to fill the memory of 1,200 average-sized personal computer hard drives.

Rothberg, who until last week was a notebook software engineer for NEC Computer Services in Acton, was arrested yesterday and charged with conspiracy in U.S. District Court in Boston. Wearing a long ponytail and black leather jacket, he pleaded not guilty and was released without bail. According to an FBI affidavit, Pirates with Attitudes is a highly structured organization with different members assigned different tasks.

``Suppliers'' steal the programs from major software companies. ``Couriers'' deliver the files to PWA and ``crackers'' strip away the security codes that prevent piracy. The group, overseen by a council, screens members to ``minimize the risk of detection by authorities,'' according to an affidavit filed by FBI Special Agent Michael Snyder of Chicago.

Rothberg, who is alleged to be a member of the council, was arrested after an informant helped steer Snyder, an MBA and computer expert, through its maze-like system. Agents located PWA's internet site, ``Sentinel,'' which is accessible only to authorized users. ``Members maintain access to PWA's site by providing files, including copyrighted software files obtained from other sources, and in turn are permitted to copy files provided by other users,'' wrote Snyder.

``Using the confidential informant's access codes, FBI agents logged onto Sentinel and viewed a directory listing thousands of copyrighted software titles available for downloading by PWA members,'' he wrote. So far only Rothberg has been arrested. Chicago authorities yesterday said the investigation is continuing. ``In the simplest terms, it's an organization that allowed its members to upload software to a site configured so it could store a substantial amount of software,'' said assistant United States Attorney Lisa Griffin. ``They could then download it into their own computers.''

Members give and take what they wish, officials said. ``It's a two-way street,'' said Randy Sanborn, spokesman for the United States Attorney's Office in the Northern District of Illinois.

Officials wouldn't say whether members have to pay anything - such as a membership fee - for the service. Rothberg was downsized out of his job last week when the division he worked for ceased to exist, according to an NEC spokeswoman, who said the company has no plans to investigate Rothberg's job performance. Rothberg asked Magistrate Judge Robert Collings for permission to travel to California today for a job interview.

And Rothberg said he had several more planned, his attorney Joseph Savage told Collings. Collings ordered him to stay off his computer except to look for a job, let the FBI spot check his e-mail, and get the court's permission if he wants to travel outside the Bay State.