The dark component of the deep web is the primary highway for the exchange and commerce among cybercriminal groups. In fact, very few cybercriminals work alone. Eighty percent of cybercrime is linked to criminal collectives, and stolen data-shaped goods surface rapidly on darknet forums and marketplaces following cybersecurity incidents with data loss.
Adapting to these trends is essential. Organizations with the ability to extract threat intelligence from data-mining these elusive online sources can achieve a significant security advantage.
Deep Web and Darknet: What’s the Difference?
The part of the web accessible through search engines and used for everyday activities is known among researchers as the surface web. Anything beyond that is defined as the deep web. While estimates vary, some researchers project there are 90 percent more deep websites than surface ones, according to TechCabal. In the deep web are unindexed websites that are not accessible to everyday Internet users. Some restrict access, others are routed through many layers of anonymity to conceal their operators’ identity.
Darknet websites and technologies are a subset of the deep web classification, which consists of sites intentionally hidden and generally only accessible through technologies like The Onion Router (Tor), a software that facilitates anonymous communication, or peer-to-peer (P2P) browsers. This hidden web is closely associated with anonymity and (in some cases) criminal activity supported by open exchange and collaboration between threat actors.
How to Draw Dark Threat Intelligence
“Dark web intelligence is critical to security decision-making at any level,” said Dave McMillen, senior analyst with X-Force IRIS at IBM X-Force Incident Response and Intelligence Services (IRIS). “It is possible to collect exploits, vulnerabilities and other indicators of compromise, as well as insight into the techniques, tactics and procedures [TTPs] that criminals use for distinct knowledge about the tools and malware threat actors favor.”
When this real-time threat data is filtered through sufficient context and separated from false positives, it becomes actionable intelligence. McMillen believes there are several ways organizations can benefit from dark-sourced intelligence. These benefits include understanding emerging threat trends to develop mitigation techniques proactively. Dark-source intelligence could also help with identifying criminal motivations and collusion before attacks. It could even aid in attributing risks and attacks to specific criminal groups.
How to Identify Darknet Security Risks
For expert threat researchers like McMillen, patterns of deep web activity can reveal an attack in progress, planned attacks, threat trends or other types of risks. Signs of a threat can emerge quickly, as financially-driven hackers try to turn stolen data into profit within hours or minutes of gaining entry to an organization’s network.
The average time it takes to identify a cybersecurity incident discovery is 197 days, according to the 2018 Cost of a Data Breach Study from the Ponemon Institute, sponsored by IBM. Companies who contain a breach within 30 days have an advantage over their less-responsive peers, saving an average of $1 million in containment costs.
See the 2020 Cost of a Data Breach report and calculator
“Employing dark web monitoring solutions that allow the use of focused filters to identify key phrases, such as your brand and product names, that may contain information that can negatively affect your organization is a good start in your effort to glean useful intelligence from the dark web,” McMillen said.
The collected data should then be alerted and routed through a human analysis process to provide actionable insights. Context-rich threat intelligence can reveal many different forms of risk.
1. Organization or Industry Discussion
Among the key risk factors and threats are mentions of an organization’s name in forum posts, paste sites, channels or chatrooms. Contextual analysis can determine whether threat actors are planning an attack or actively possess stolen data. Other high-risk discussions can surround niche industries or verticals, or information on compromising highly-specific technologies employed by an organization.
2. Personally Identifiable Information (PII) Exchange
When a breach has occurred, the sale of PII, personal health data, financial data or other sensitive information can be indicative of the aftermath of an attack. A single data record can sell for up to $20, according to Recorded Future. This data is generally stolen en-masse from large organizations — such as credit agencies and banks — so a few thousand credit card numbers can turn a huge profit.
Unsurprisingly, 76 percent of breaches are financially motivated, according to the 2018 Data Breach Investigations Report from Verizon.
3. Credential Exchange
Lost or stolen credentials were the most common threat action employed in 2017, contributing to 22 percent of data breaches, according to the Verizon report. While the presence of usernames and passwords on paste sites or marketplaces can indicate a data breach, contextual analysis is required to determine whether this is a recent compromise or recycled data from a prior incident.
In May 2018, threat intelligence company 4iQ uncovered a massive floating database of identity information, including over 1.4 billion unencrypted credentials.
“The breach is almost two times larger than the previous largest credential exposure,” Julio Casal, founder of 4iQ, told Information Age.
4. Information Recon
Social engineering tactics are employed in 52 percent of attacks, according to a February 2018 report from security company F-Secure. Collusion around information recon can surface in both open and closed-forum exchanges between individual threat actors and collectives.
5. Phishing Attack Coordination
As phishing and whaling attacks become more sophisticated, deep web threat intelligence can reveal popular TTPs and risks. Coordination around information recon is common. Threat actors can now purchase increasingly complex phishing-as-a-service software kits and if defenders are familiar with them, they can better educate users and put the right controls in place.
Although malicious insiders cause fewer breaches than simple human error, the darknet is an established hub for criminal collectives to recruit employees with network credentials for a sophisticated attack. Dark Reading tracked nearly twice as many references to insider recruitment on darknet forums in 2016 as in 2015.
7. Trade Secrets and Sensitive Asset Discussions
Trade secrets and competitive intelligence are another lucrative aspect of threat actor commerce that can signal risks to researchers. In one recent incident reported by CNBC in July 2018, a likely Russian cybercriminal sold access to a law firm’s network and sensitive assets for $3,500. Having had that information ahead of time could have saved the victim time, money, and reputational damage.
What Are the Challenges to Deriving Value From Dark Sources?
While there is clear strategic and tactical value to darknet threat intelligence, significant challenges can arise on the road to deep web threat hunting and data-mining. For instance, it’s not ideal to equip security operations center (SOC) analysts with a Tor browser. The potential volume of false positives based on the sheer size of the hidden web necessitates a more effective approach.
“The dark web is fragmented and multi-layered,” McMillen said.
When researchers discover a credible source, it generally requires hours to vet intelligence and perform a complete analysis. Darknet commerce has also grown increasingly mercurial and decentralized as law enforcement tracks criminal TTPs as they emerge. Security leaders who can overcome these barriers have the potential to significantly improve security strategy in response to emerging threat trends and risk factors.
The 2018 Artificial Intelligence (AI) in Cyber-Security Study from the Ponemon Institute, sponsored by IBM Security, discovered that artificial intelligence (AI ) could provide deeper security and increased productivity at lower costs. Sixty-nine percent of respondents stated that the most significant benefit of AI was the ability to increase speed in analyzing threats.
As leaders consider how to deepen adoption of dark threat intelligence, it’s valuable to understand that not all intelligence sources can adequately capture the full scope of threat actor exchange on this vast, fast-morphing plane. Relying on stagnant, outdated or fully automated technologies may fail to mitigate important risks. The best mode of protection is one which combines the intelligence of skilled human researchers and AI to turn raw data into actionable intelligence effectively.
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Jasmine Henry (formerly Jasmine W. Gordon) is a Seattle-based emerging commentator and freelance journalist specializing in analytics, information security, ...