The web has opened up more opportunities for crime than ever before.
You are more likely to be a victim of cybercrime than any other sort of crime and a whole criminal cyber-industry has emerged.
All you need to do is load up a piece of software and log onto the dark web, where hidden marketplaces are selling everything from hacked Netflix accounts to super-strength crack cocaine.
Silk Road, the first mordern dark web marketplace, opened in 2011 and heralded the beginning of an era where dealers and customers could use technology to shield their identity, sending packages of drugs in the post rather than handing them over in gloomy alleyways.
Less than a decade later there are dozens of marketplaces as well as hundreds of online hacker-for-hire communities populated by cybercrooks willing to rent out their skills.
The rapid increase in the size and scope of the dark web has led experts to warn that it’s set to become an illicit shadow ‘Amazon of crime’ where illegal products and services are just a few clicks away.
Hackers now tend to congregate in hidden communities only accessible to members recommended by other users or by paying an entry fee.
‘There used to be 20 hacker forums on the dark web now we’re looking at at least 300 communities,’ Andrei Barysevich, director of advanced collections at tech security firm Recorded Future, tells Metro.co.uk.
‘Some of these communities are incredibly large. We’ve seen forums with half a million registered users.’
Hacked products and services are also traded on the dark web as well as highly sensitive top-secret commercial or even military information, the dark web detective told us.
Markets pop up and collapse regularly as they are busted and are even sometimes taken over by law enforcement to be used as a honeytrap to snare criminals.
In 2017, for instance. the Hansa market was hijacked by Dutch police. Around 27,000 illegal transactions took place while they were watching, taking notes and planning arrests.
Around 10,000 home addresses for buyers of illegal goods were said to have been collected.
The dark web is famous for drugs but Barysevich believes the massive growth of illegal marketplaces was actually driven by demand for dodgy data.
‘They grew quickly because people were looking for small time data,’ he says.
‘This is maybe someone who doesn’t want to pay the full Netflix charge.
‘He could just buy a hacked account for two dollars which could last him a lifetime.’
Welcome to the dark side
It used to be quite difficult to access the dark web, which requires a special browser and a high degree of caution because hackers are lurking in every murky corner of the hidden internet.
But as technology has developed, it’s become much easier for people to log onto this secret world.
And once they’re onto the dark web, people can quickly get sucked in, become exposed to deeper levels of illegal activity before being drawn to the dark side themselves.
‘Even someone who buys relatively innocent data could become a bigger criminal once they are exposed to a dark web community,’ Barysevich says.
‘You can learn a lot on the dark web. Once you’ve bought a hacked Netflix account, you might start reading about what else you could do.
‘Then you’re learning about stealing money from people’s bank accounts or even buying ransomware to extort money from targets or sending out vast amounts of spam email.
‘It’s a gateway drug that could eventually lead to much more dangerous conduct.’
The marketplaces are now incredibly slick, with a feedback system like eBay and a complaints system to protects buyers and sellers.
However, they routinely close down without warning, effectively shutting down the shopfronts of hackers.
In March 2019, a dark website called Dream Market suddenly announced it was closing after being the top dark web marketplace for several years.
It had been subject to a prolonged ‘DDoS attack’ (where huge traffic is targeted at a site to make sure it doesn’t function properly) by a hacker who is rumoured to have tried to blackmail the site by asking for huge amounts of money to stop the assault.
In the future, the marketplaces are likely to become increasingly resilient and decentralised so they are protected from other cybercriminals as well as the police.
If someone finds a way of building an unbreakable, unhackable marketplace and ensure its operators are totally untraceable, there’s every chance this illegal business could earn tens or even hundreds of millions for its owners.
‘The dark web is becoming an Amazon for fraud where customers can add items to cart, select delivery options and preferred cryptocurrency payment method, before checking-out with just one click.
‘The dark web is notorious for criminal activity and we are now seeing the extent to which these marketplaces are a hotbed for hackers and a forum for fraudsters.’
Cops and robbers
Police are currently in an arms race with criminals and it’s far from clear the ‘good guys’ are going to win.
‘The dark web is only going to get darker and more sophisticated in the future,’ Marina Kidron, director of threat intelligence at Skybox Security, says.
‘We’re operating at a time when cybercriminals are increasingly industrialised: these aren’t some scrappy thugs looking for a smash-and-grab. They’re intelligent, they’re organised and they’re working towards more lucrative and more damaging goals.
‘Cybercriminals use illegitimate marketplaces to buy private data extracted from attacks as well as the information, tools and services that can be used for cyberattacks of their own.
‘While these items can be used against individuals, the trend for years has been moving toward attacking entire organizations (think headline-making data breaches and global ransomware outbreaks). The evolution of the dark web is only going to lower the bar of entry to pull off mass-scale cyberattacks.’
Kidron says life is going to become harder for police as well as dark web criminals up their game.
‘It’s estimated that law enforcement agencies are embedded in about half of the dark web,’ she says.
‘[They’re] sometimes running a sort of undercover operation, infiltrating invitation-only forums, shutter sites and disrupt or capture the cyber gangs behind them.
‘To ensure their illegitimate marketplaces can persist, dark web operators will improve their sites’ gatekeeping and make it harder for posers and “tourists” to gain access. The cyber arms race between law enforcement and the dark web will only escalate in the future.’
The bright side of the dark web
It’s not all bad news though.
The rise of anonymous marketplaces obviously poses a nightmare for the authorities but the existence of ungovernable, uncensorable online spaces is very useful for people living in repressive regimes or even for dissidents in the west where governments are already seeking to control what we see online.
Attempts to censor the internet seem likely to continue in at least the short term, which could drive larger numbers of people onto the dark web in search of the sort of freedom once offered by the visible internet.
Once on the dark web, it’s becoming reasonably easy to operate in total secrecy and anonymity, using VPNs to hide your identity and using secure cryptocurrencies like Monero so payments cannot be easily traced.
This technology is likely to evolve dramatically in the coming years and become easier to use, making it more likely that growing numbers of people will find freedom in the wild spaces of the dark web.
‘Anonymisation is going to become more important over time,’ Charl van der Walt, chief security strategy officer at SecureData, says.
‘This will be driven by the accelerating splintering of the Internet as nations seek to enforce more control of what their citizens can access on the internet. This will undoubtedly continue as nation-on-nation cyber-attacks drive increased efforts by governments to protect their local ‘patches’ of the internet.
‘As governments seek to assert more control over the internet, and the internet starts to splinter into geo-political “camps” as a result, I believe that a counter-movement will grow.
‘This movement will seek to recreate the original boundary-less nature of the Internet by encrypting and anonymising all services and traffic, using something like [anonymous web browser] TOR to bypass geopolitical boundaries.’
If that is the case then we’re only at the tip of the dark web iceberg.
Though if it’s the anonymous ‘Amazon of crime’ now, it could be where more and more people go to avoid detection before too long.
The Future Of Everything
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