October 24, 2012, 1:03 AM — When 32-year-old Russian programmer Andrey N. Sabelnikov visited the U.S. for the first time in January, he had a surprise waiting for him.
The surprise was an amended civil lawsuit soon to be filed against him by Microsoft, which alleged he was the mastermind behind a network of hacked computers called Kelihos, which used the compromised Windows computers to send spam and install fake antivirus software.
After several months of effort, Microsoft announced last week it had reached a settlement with Sabelnikov, who described himself in an interview over email on Wednesday with IDG News Service as a C++ developer of high-performance backend applications.
The secret settlement, which neither Microsoft nor Sabelnikov will divulge, almost never happened.
Microsoft filed the amended civil suit in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia on Jan. 23. Writing on his blog four days later, Sabelnikov strongly denied any connection with Kelihos, which infected around 45,000 or so computers but sent nearly 4 billion spam messages a day, promoting pornography and pharmaceutical products.
An avid photographer, Sabelnikov's website that showed his portfolio may have implicated him. Security writer Brian Krebs wrote in January that the source code for Kelihos contained debug code that would download an installer for Kelihos from Sabelnikov's website.
"They found some of my developments," Sabelnikov said. "I used sabelnikov.net to debug some things, but sabelnikov.net had never been used to host any malware and had never been related to any kind of criminal activity."
For months, Microsoft attempted to negotiate with Sabelnikov, who ironically had worked for around six years for two Russian companies, Agnitum and Returnil, that sell security software. By August, Microsoft was ready to throw in the towel and ask the federal court for entry of a default judgement.
"Microsoft has diligently attempted to negotiate a resolution with Mr. Sabelnikov in an attempt to efficiently resolve this matter without requiring further intervention by the court," according to an Aug. 8 court filing. "Mr. Sabelnikov has not yet answered."