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Decoding Dark Web

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Decoding Dark Web
Madhuparna Roy Sukul - 31 July 2021

Unlike its dubious peers, the instant loan app didn’t ask for access to his personal details, and promised to lend Rs 10,000 within two hours of filling up some basic credentials. It took Balaji Vijayaraghavan barely 30 seconds to download SnapIt. And an hour later, he received a text message from his bank, saying that Rs 1 lakh was debited from his account.

It was a typical case of data breach. The criminology graduate handled the situation firmly. He immediately blocked all his bank accounts and got in touch with Save Them India Foundation, a non-government organisation, to investigate the cybersecurity aspects of the incident.

Balaji discovered that although he did not log into the app, neither gave access to any other apps like contacts, camera or gallery, the hackers managed to invade his phone with 59 malwares. The fraudsters actually hijacked his phone and used it to send text messages and read OTPs received. This gave them the access to his bank account.

The bank account was perhaps used for money laundering activities like using cryptocurrency for dark web transactions or, put it simply, to turn dirty money clean. The incident was published in details in a news portal.

Balaji’s was just one of the innumerable cybercrime cases reported every year in India and abroad. A raging wave of digitalisation and a life increasingly dependent on apps are largely setting the perfect stage for cybercrime. While SPECOPS data from 2006 to 2020 shows that the US leads the pack of countries hit hardest by cyberattacks, the threat landscape has grown significantly for India during the pandemic. From your identity and bank account details to vaccine or eyes, you think of it, and it’s on sale on dark web.

Welcome to the wild world of dark web. Out of bounds for conventional search engines, it needs specific browsers, such as Tor, to reach dark web. The browser provides privacy and secrecy to the user. But the concept of dark web developed into a free space to access anything while staying invisible. From child pornography, illegal drugs and sex trafficking to extortion and hacking – dark web is being used for all the wrong reasons. Not to forget, abetment to suicides, murders and contract killing make dark web a great catalyst for those with hostile intent.

Dark web, also referred to as dark net, is a portion of the internet that requires special software to access and can be difficult to navigate once you do. People may browse and post information on dark web with relative anonymity because of many levels of encryption, which makes it a popular venue for buying and selling illicit products and services.

Tor, which stands for The Onion Router, bounces data through several encrypted layers like an onion to provide greater anonymity to users. On the Tor network, there are onion sites and services and the page addresses end with ‘.onion’ instead of the likes of ‘.com’ or ‘.net’ or ‘.org’. Tor is just another technology which, when used for a good purpose, can yield some great results like avoiding censorship, accessing illegal markets to get hold of certain pills that are not available in some countries and can help improve the quality of life, and for the whistleblowers to spread information safely.

The concept of dark web isn’t always harmful, unlawful or risky. Whistleblowers, journalists, activists and law enforcement agents use dark web to acquire and exchange information without disclosing their identities. One may wish to use Tor to avoid government restrictions and monitoring throughout the world.

However, having a browser is only the first step. Unlike the surface online, dark web lacks good search engines, and you may need to look up the address of an onion site on your own and the names aren’t easy to remember. This is primarily used for illegal purposes.

Cryptocurrency is a major tool that facilitates smooth functioning of illegal trade on dark web since cryptos are not regulated yet. As Nobel laureate American economist Joseph Stiglitz says, “When you regulate it so you cannot engage in money laundering, there will be no demand for Bitcoin.”

Criminals on dark web and seeking anonymity use cryptocurrency mixing platforms like SmartMixer or Dark Wallet as the main means of money laundering. Dark Wallet is an open-source Bitcoin platform created in 2014 to make users anonymous and obscure  transactions. Coin mixing is the process of combining a user’s transaction with that of other random users who chance to be using the system at the same moment.

It combines Bitcoins of two or more users and blends them to hide their origins, making it exceedingly difficult for a third party to figure exactly who carried out the transaction. Anonymize, Wasabi Wallet and SmartMixer are just a few of the competing wallets.

There are more ways to launder money from dark web. A criminal who wants to steal money from a bank account can hire a professional hacker who will sell the stolen funds for a percentage or a predetermined charge in Bitcoin and transfer the funds into the criminal’s bank account. This may appear to be a loss, but the hacker is compensated and the criminal receives a predetermined sum of money in his bank account without having to go through the technological bother.

Limited-time deals, user reviews, and ads for organic items may all be found on dark net marketplaces, which are remarkably similar to sites found on the surface web. Criminals utilise these markets to sell illicit goods and services such as narcotics, firearms, and hacking software. On dark web, many identity thieves and hacker groups make money by selling the information they steal.

The value of the information varies depending on what’s being sold. Full profiles, also known as Fullz, might include a name, social security number, date of birth, and account number, and can cost anything from $8 to $30 per profile.

But how do they gain access to such data? Well, the digital economy sees two types of frauds – syndicate fraud and technology-enabled fraud. You may have a digital presence and people often ask for your PAN card and Aadhar card and you may be naive enough to share them on WhatsApp with an agent representing the financial company you are talking to. You don’t know what happens next and to whom you sent the documents. All these can be misused to impersonate you. “This is the biggest worry for the lenders where imposters use someone else’s identity and apply for loans,” says Akshay Mehrotra, Co-Founder and CEO of EarlySalary.

In case of technology-enabled fraud, a system is used to steal the customer profile and make random hits like injecting malware into the device. There’s a third type of fraud. “When the customer enters data on a local hyper delivery application with only around 10,000 users in return to a cashback and end up hit with fraud,” Mehrotra says.

While these data can be on dark net for sale, customer data can also be stolen when they don’t update their passwords often or take precautions. The odds are high these days to trace your cyber footprints.

Medical records in their whole are extremely desirable to identity thieves and may fetch up to $1,000. Cryptocurrencies, such as Bitcoin, are the preferred payment method because they allow buyers and sellers to remain anonymous.

If your transactions are mainly online, you should not be surprised if you bump into your data someday over dark net. The majority of stolen data is either used in illegal purposes by attackers or sold on dark web. This is picked up by cybercriminals for online transactions or to compromise other accounts through credential stuffing attacks. Cybercriminals sell these data on dark web or hacking forums by releasing a sample of it to woo fellow crooks.

The stolen information is typically exchanged for Bitcoin. The hackers sometimes release data on dark web for free to extort money from the victim. Personal information taken from users, such as credit card numbers, online banking passwords, and social network logins, is sold cheap on many dark net forums. These portals also sell forged papers such as passports, driving licences and auto-insurance cards. Online banking credentials cost an average of $35 on dark web, while credit card details, including related data, are free.

India ranked tenth in the latest Global Cyber Security Index. It reflects the progress India has made over the last few years. But, advancement of technology has also given new tools to cyber threat actors to perform smarter. A recent report from Interpol has identified phishing as one of the top cyber threats for 2020. “Statistics shared by Mumbai Police confirm that only 10 per cent of the reported cybersecurity-related cases were solved by them. Considering all this, it is even more important for Indians to be more vigilant and careful about their finances and while performing any online transaction,” says Zaki Qureshey, Director-General of India’s first CyberSecurity Cluster-HSC and also the President and CEO of Homeland Security Solutions BV, in an emailed response to Outlook Money.

Some other methods the criminals use include the KYC, fake cash-back, digital wallet frauds, phishing, QR codes, UPI phishing, lottery scams and social media scams. Social engineering is still the most widely used method for performing cyber frauds in India. A recent report found that almost 500,000 credit cards were exposed from almost all Indian banks at a single dark web carding shop. This confirms that despite all the efforts taken by banks and other organisations, citizens are consistently falling victims of various frauds and are losing their money and personal data.

With most things in life going online over the last 15 months, the world is churning out 2.5 quintillion bytes of data each day. “In the last six months alone, there have been many large-scale data leaks of Indian citizens from some of the large Indian companies such as Big Basket, Dominos, Paytm and Yatra. Many large Indian businesses have also fallen victims of Ransomware attacks and all these put the average Indian at risk of becoming an easy target of online frauds,” Qureshey says.  

In fact, India has become the favourite destination for cybercriminals with the economy suffering a loss of $18.5 billion from cyberattacks in 2017 alone. A Statista report says 23,227 people form India have claimed to use technologies that help access dark net. In reality, there’s only about 6.7 per cent of Tor users in India who are accessing dark web and that’s despite the infamy of being the hub of criminal activities.

The fact that India leads in terms of population and rising interest of citizens in technology, it is to be seen how the country makes the most of cryptocurrencies and fight the dark threat.

Dark web accounts for nearly 500,000 users that include over 2,400 sellers and 320,000 transactions per year. According to a study on the dark web economy by Armor Threat Resistance Unit, a dark net user could get around $10,000 in cash for Bitcoin worth $800 (Forbes).

It is hard to estimate the approximate size of the market for dark web content. According to a recent study on the dark web intelligence market, it is estimated to exceed $840 million by 2026 averaging an annual growth rate of over 20.1 per cent.

A study conducted by the Carnegie Mellon University in 2013, Silk Road netted a whopping $300,000 per day and closing at roughly $100 million a year. While Silk Road was shut down by the FBI in 2013, the model inspired the mushrooming of many such marketplaces like Evolution, Agora, Nucleus and Abraxas, with listings for drugs, fake IDs and firearms. Silk Road was an online black-market platform, popular for money laundering activities. It was replaced by the next largest dark web marketplace, Agora.

The way the dark web marketplace is expanding, the estimated money at stake is beyond our imagination. Based on an analysis conducted on raw data of Bitcoin transactions carried out on 31 of the biggest marketplaces on dark net, the approximate amount of money (in Bitcoin) involved – both sent and received – stands    at $4.210 billion.

A Chainalysis (blockchain data platform) report says the dark web market recorded the best profit of $1.7 billion in cryptocurrency last year, although individual purchases dipped from $12.2 million in 2019 to $10 million in 2020. Hydra, perhaps the largest dark web marketplace, constituted over 75 per cent of the profit logged in last year.

While implementing cybersecurity regulations and using anti-malware software or spam filters do assure security to some extent, the rate at which the fraudsters catch up with the latest technology is unthinkable. Leveraging the threat intelligence services can help detect the tools being deployed for cyberattacks as well as to collect threat data.

“There are certain fixed norms where whenever we get our system audited from external auditors, we ensure that our penetration testing is well certified to avoid any injection and ensure data localisation to avoid any customer data to be placed outside the country,” says Gautam Sinha, a FACE Member and Vice President for Technology at LoanTap.

Madhusudan Ekambaram, fellow FACE Member and Co-Founder and CEO of KreditBee, assures that proactive measures have been taken by digital lenders, RBI and FinTech Association for Consumer Empowerment (FACE) for the digital lending ecosystem. “Leading digital lenders have set up robust data architecture and technology infrastructure, eliminating their dependence on the customers’ galleries or contact lists. They are also ensuring the central storage of the customer’s KYC data and are performing information security audits consistently,” he says.

The advancement of technology would be impossible to adapt without being aware that there’s always a flip side to it. India might be fast turning into a bright spot on dark web, there are cyber cops watching out for any kind of malicious activities on the net. But nothing can ward off the menace unless every individual becomes more proactive to prepare and pre-empt the threat.


The writer is a tech journalist

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