Over the past 20 years, cybercrime has become a mature industry estimated to produce more than $1 trillion in annual revenues. From products like exploit kits and custom malware to services like botnet rentals and ransomware distribution, the breadth of cybercrime offerings has never been greater. The result: more, and more serious, forms of cybercrime. New tools and platforms are more accessible than ever before to those who lack advanced technical skills, enabling scores of new actors to hop aboard the cybercrime bandwagon. Meanwhile, more experienced criminals can develop more specialized skills in the knowledge that they can locate others on the darknet who can complement their services and work together with them to come up with new and better criminal tools and techniques.
Line Between Illicit and Legitimate E-Commerce Is Blurring
The cybercrime ecosystem has evolved to welcome both new actors and new scrutiny. The threat of prosecution has pushed most cybercrime activities onto the darknet, where the anonymity of Tor and Bitcoin protects the bad guys from being easily identified. Trust is rare in these communities, so some markets are implementing escrow payments to make high-risk transactions easier; some sellers even offer support services and money-back guarantees on their work and products.
The markets have also become fractured, as the pro criminals restrict themselves to highly selective discussion boards to limit the threat from police and fraudsters. Nevertheless, a burgeoning cybercrime market has sprung from these hidden places to offer everything from product development to technical support, distribution, quality assurance, and even help desks.
Many cybercriminals rely on the Tor network to stay hidden. Tor — The Onion Router — allows users to cruise the Internet anonymously by encrypting their activities and then routing it through multiple random relays on its way to its destination. This circuitous process renders it nearly impossible for law enforcement to track users or determine the identities of visitors to certain black-market sites.
From Niche to Mass Market
In 2015, the UK National Cyber Crime Unit’s deputy director stated during a panel discussion that investigators believed that the bulk of the cybercrime-as-a-service economy was based on the efforts of only 100 to 200 people who profit handsomely from their involvement. Carbon Black’s research discovered that the darknet’s marketplace for ransomware is growing at a staggering 2,500% per annum, and that some of the criminals can generate over $100,000 a year selling ransomware kits alone. That’s more than twice the annual salary of a software developer in Eastern Europe, where many of these criminals operate.
There are plenty of ways for a cybercriminal to rake in the cash without ever perpetrating "traditional" cybercrime like financial fraud or identity theft. The first way is something called research-as-a-service, where individuals work to provide the "raw materials" — such as selling knowledge of system vulnerabilities to malware developers — for future criminal activities. The sale of software exploits has captured much attention recently, as the ShadowBrokers and other groups have introduced controversial subscription programs that give clients access to unpatched system vulnerabilities.
Zero-Day Exploits, Ransomware, and DDoS Extortion Are Bestsellers
The number of discovered zero-day exploits — weaknesses in code that had been previously undetected by the product’s vendor — has dropped steadily since 2014, according to Symantec’s 2018 Internet Security Threat Report, thanks in part to an increase in “bug bounty” programs that encourage and incentivize the legal disclosure of vulnerabilities. In turn, this has led to an increase in price for the vulnerabilities that do get discovered, with some of the most valuable being sold for more than $100,000 in one of the many darknet marketplaces catering to exploit sales, as highlighted in related a blog post on TechRepublic. Other cybercrime actors sell email databases to simplify future cybercrime campaigns, as was the case in 2016 when 3 billion Yahoo accounts were sold to a handful of spammers for $300,000 each.
Exploit kits are another popular product on the darknet. They provide inexperienced cybercriminals with the tools they need to break into a wide range of systems. However, Europol suggests that the popularity of exploit kits has fallen over the past 12 months as the top products have been eliminated and their replacements have failed to offer a comparable sophistication or popularity. Europol also notes that theft through malware was generally becoming less of a threat; instead, today’s cybercriminals prefer ransomware and distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) extortion, which are easier to monetize.
The third way hackers can profit from more sophisticated cybercrime is by providing cybercrime infrastructure-as-a-service. Those in this field are provide the services and infrastructure — including bulletproof hosting and botnet rentals — on which other bad actors rely to do their dirty work. The former helps cybercriminals to put web pages and servers on the Internet without having to worry about takedowns by law enforcement. And cybercriminals can pay for botnet rentals that give them temporary access to a network of infected computers they can use for spam distribution or DDoS attacks, for example.
Researchers estimate that a $60-a-day botnet can cause up to $720,000 in damages on victim organizations. The numbers for hackers who control the botnets are also big: the bad guys can produce significant profit margins when they rent their services out to other criminals, as highlighted in a related post.
The New Reality
Digital services are often the backbone of small and large organizations alike. Whether it’s a small online shop or a behemoth operating a global digital platform, if services are slow or down for hours, the company’s revenue and reputation may be on the line. In the old days, word of mouth circulated slowly, but today bad news can reach millions of people instantly. Using botnets for DDoS attacks is a moneymaker for cybercriminals who extort money from website proprietors by threatening an attack that would destroy their services.
The danger posed by Internet of Things (IoT) botnets was shown in 2016 when the massive Mirai IoT botnet attacked the domain name provider Dyn and took down websites like Twitter, Netflix, and CNN in the largest such attack ever seen. Botnet use will probably expand in the coming years as cybercriminals continue to exploit vulnerabilities in IoT devices to create even larger networks. Get used to it: Cybercrime is here to stay.
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