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In a conference room nine floors above London's St. Giles High Street, a Russian engineer named Sasha booted up a computer and began giving me instructions.
"First step, let's go to some website," he commanded. "AdAge.com, how about that one?" As the page loaded on my browser, a stream of code ran down the screen in a separate window to the left. After a few seconds, Sasha explained what was happening. "I'm afraid that when you're dealing with our team, you shouldn't just go to a website when we tell you," he said. The computer, brand new, was already infected. "You are participating in a botnet."
Actually, the connection I was operating on was hacked, not AdAge.com; visiting any site on the internet would have infected the computer. But Sasha appeared to be enjoying my discomfort, and his work was just beginning.
Sasha is a member of Google 's secretive antifraud team. The unit, numbering more than 100, is locked in a war against an unknown quantity of cybercriminals who are actively siphoning billions of dollars out of the digital advertising industry, primarily via the creation of robotic traffic that appears human. Mysterious to many even within Google, the group has never spoken to an outsider about the way it hunts botnets, let alone allowed someone into its offices to observe the process. But that silence ended the moment Sasha opened his computer.
Explain It Like I'm Eight: Digital Ad Fraud