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Last Updated: Sunday, 30 May, 2004, 23:09 GMT 00:09 UK
Undercover agents fight net piracy
By Jane Wakefield
BBC News Online technology reporter

He works undercover, has an online identity which he cannot reveal to anyone for fear of exposure and has to maintain anonymity or face threats to his personal security.

Still from James Bond film, The World Is Not Enough
Mr X's job is not quite as spectacular as James Bond's
In the murky world of organised crime and piracy, the investigator known only as Mr X has the job of, in his own words, "cleaning the internet of some of the filth out there".

It may sound like the synopsis for the latest Hollywood spy thriller but Mr X has a much more down-to-earth name in real life and works for the Business Software Alliance.

He is one of a team of investigators employed by the BSA to patrol the internet and take action against online pirates.

Clean-up operation

With well over two million websites distributing illegal software, it is clear that his average day is not a walk in the park.

Like many office workers his day begins with a check through a pile of e-mail. He has to follow up dozens leads received from members of the public, businesses and internet providers.

With the explosion of websites selling pirated software and the peer-to-peer distribution of software, the job is too much for just human spies.

Legal action against 9,142 companies
Handled 57,625 calls
Followed up 7,929 leads
Automated software is used by investigators such as Mr X to trawl the internet and identify possible pirate sites.

But there is no substitute for commonsense when it comes to checking whether websites and online auctions are trading in counterfeit goods.

Human psychology is paramount when monitoring the activities of the pirates and for this, Mr X must adopt his online persona.

"I have been doing this job for five years so I have the right way of speaking and have gained some level of trust," he told BBC News Online.

Some software pirates are part of organised crime gangs and tend to keep a very low profile online he explained. Others are chattier, using bulletin boards to discuss the latest releases.

There is also a lot of evidence gathering for potential prosecutions. Mr X works closely with customer and trading standards officers, lawyers and law enforcement bodies such as the Hi-Tech Crime Unit and the FBI.

As well as a degree of technical knowledge and a legal mind, Mr X needs to have a great deal of persistence as the job can sometimes be a case of two steps forward and three back.

"Sometimes it does feel like that," said Mr X. "I will think I've seen this guy already today, why has he popped back up?"

"The result for me is just to have a clean internet. There is so much filth out there and it is satisfying when it goes down," he said.

Peer-to-peer headaches

With so much pirate activity going on online an outsider would be forgiven for thinking that Mr X is looking for a needle in a haystack.

Blank CDR
Pirated programs are a major headache for the software industry
But there are four main types of piracy to follow-up.

First there are direct downloads. These are websites with a link which enables people to download illegal software straight on to their machines.

Secondly there are websites, set up to look like legitimate e-commerce sites but trading in pirated goods.

Then there are sites which offer programs known as cracks which allow users to get around copyright protection.

Lastly there are legitimate auction sites which are selling pirated business software, films, music and games.

It is much to cover in a day's work and there is a new headache for the investigators in the form of the number of peer-to-peer networks which allow users to download music, films and other software for free.

There can be moments when the job is rewarding though.

"On one occasion we e-mailed an e-commerce site to tell them they were hosting pirated software and they e-mailed back to thank us as they hadn't realised and wondered why so much bandwidth was being used up," said Mr X.

You can hear an interview with Mr X on the BBC World Service programme, Go Digital.

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