Interview: Dr. Damon McCoy

Posted: May 28, 2013 at 6:46 pm, Last Updated: February 11, 2016 at 8:26 pm

Dr. Damon McCoy is part of a team that received a five-year, ten million dollar “Frontier” grant from the National Science Foundation in September 2012 to tackle the technological and economic aspects of internet security.   He is an Assistant Professor in the Computer Sciences Department at George Mason University.   Dr. McCoy earned his Ph.D. from the University of Colorado in Boulder and was a Computer Innovation Fellow at the University of California, San Diego.  His research includes work on wireless privacy, anonymous communication systems, cyber-physical security, and economics of e-crime.  In 2013 he received a Google Research Award for a project on “Understanding the Business of Traffic Distribution System Services.”

What got you interested in issues of computer crime?
DM: First I approached it from the technology side.   We were looking for ways to combat spam, and we tried everything possible to fight it at the technological level, trying to make computers more secure, using filters, etc.  But we made no headway.   So then we decided that it was time to step back and take a more holistic approach.  We needed to understand how spam works, and — most importantly – how people make money from it.  So we decided to map out every link in the chain from start to finish:  domain names, business methods, how the spam is sent, how the money comes in, how the payment works, and what happens when the purchase is made.  So we learned a great deal about banking and credit card infra-structure.
It turns out that in order to accept payments by major credit cards over the internet you need to go to a bank and set up a merchant account.  And we discovered that there are effectively three banks, one each in Latvia, Azerbaijan and Saint Kitts and Nevis,  who host 95% of the spam accounts.  So that gives us one angle to attack the problem from.

What did you do next?
DM: We talked to policy makers and credit card associations, and got them to enact some new rules.  Visa agreed to start a global brand protection program, under which Visa will shut down the merchant accounts of any entity that sells counterfeit goods, if the brand name holder files a complaint.  We decided to focus on two areas:  counterfeit software and pharmaceuticals, and we worked with a major software developer and a major pharmaceutical company who filed complaints.  Then we spent two years mapping and measuring the results.  It turned out that our work had a major impact in the software space and led to a near eradication of programs selling illicit software over the internet.
But we had less of an impact in the pharmaceutical sector, which is a much bigger and more profitable business.  The major illicit pharmaceutical distributors are in Russia.  The spammers basically act as independent marketing agents for the pharmacies.  They call them “partnery .”   They drive traffic to the pharmacies, and in turn they get a commission –up to 50% of the sales revenue – when a sale comes through the traffic that they have brought in.   A lot of the pharmaceuticals they sell are actually produced in India, but under generic licensing agreements that do not permit them to sell to developed countries.

Tell us about the “Frontier” Grant from the National Science Foundation.  What is the focus?   
DM: It is basically an expansion and extension of this work, with the aim of gaining a better understanding of how the world of modern cybercrime works, to be carried out by the same team of researchers, working at UCSD, Berkeley and GMU.  We are focusing on four areas:  first of all, the economics of e-crime, trying to get a better grasp of how cybercriminals make their money in different scams.  Then we will be looking at the role of on-line social networks, such as Facebook and Twitter, which have become a new battleground in cyber-security.  We will also look at the underground social networks that exist between cybercriminals and are used to spread new scams.

Tell us about your cooperation with TraCCC and Dr.Louise Shelley.
DM: We are interested in many of the same issues and have been looking to develop projects together.  We both want to work on combating illicit trade in wildlife.  We have great potential partners here at GMU, including the Smithsonian-Mason School of Conservation.
Currently, the emphasis  is on fighting wildlife trafficking through supply reduction, focusing on improving security for endangered species by providing safer refuges, more park rangers, etc.  But Louise and I are looking at it from another perspective.  We want to get  a better, more holistic understanding of the transactions involved, so that we can understand who is making money on it, and how, and then we can try to put a brake on it from the demand side.   Here again the internet plays a crucial role, by expanding demand and allowing people to conduct their illicit business more efficiently and anonymously.

This is your second year at George Mason.  Tell us what you like best about it and where you think we need improvement.
DM: George Mason’s location makes it the perfect place to intersect the academic and policy worlds.  In the Washington area, we have direct access to policy makers at all levels.  Many of them teach on our faculty.  But despite this proximity, we stay in our silos.  There is not nearly as much interaction as there should be.  The Fairfax campus seems remote from the School of Public Policy in Arlington.   I would like to see more interaction and better collaboration across schools, departments and campuses.


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