All businesses evolve and adapt to their environments. Businesses in the Dark Web are no exception. In the burgeoning and nearly unpoliceable business climate that is the Dark Web, it's only natural that businesses should become more "professional" — both in their revenue models and in their practices. We saw this happen in 2019 and expect even greater movement in this direction in 2020.
The "Servitization" of the Dark Web
Making money from stolen personal credentials via the Dark Web is pretty much de rigueur for would-be cybercriminals. Yet in the past, this process involved significant effort for the cybercriminal-to-be.
First, criminals needed to code or acquire a Trojan to use for infecting online banking portals or payment systems. Then they'd have to disseminate their malware and infect targets. Following the infection, they'd need to access all infected machines, harvest relevant data, and process it. Only then could they begin cashing out — selling stolen credentials or data via the Dark Web.
This process is now becoming astoundingly less complex — and infinitely more dangerous.
Servitization is the process of shifting from selling products to selling services that provide the outcomes those products deliver. This shift has transformed many above-board business models, and this same process will continue to spread across criminal networks this year and beyond. Today's cybercriminals are already buying and selling services rather than goods in the cybercrime financial ecosystem — and this trend will accelerate.
This means that threat actors no longer need to suffer the complexities of development, infection, extraction, and monetization on their own. Rather, they can use malware-as-a-service (MaaS) — the same malware that was previously sold as a product is now being sold as a business service.
Numerous underground markets have already sprung up around this business model. For example, today there are markets on the Dark Web where cybercriminals can pay a monthly fee for access to an updated dataset maintained by threat actors. There are also pay-per-bot markets, in which buyers can view "bots" — machines infected with banking Trojans — that can conduct services and attain credentials on demand.
The fact that the level of skill required to commit cybercrimes is dropping spells trouble for individual victims and organizations alike. Underground threat actors have learned that they can reach far beyond low-hanging fruit — the credentials that come with an easy cash-out process. We will see an increasing number of threat actors targeting assets with more difficult cash-out processes because servitization can take over the heavy lifting for any given crime.
New Branded Monetization Channels Emerge
Essentially, we're seeing cybercrime evolve into recognizably mainstream business models — and we expect this to accelerate this year.
Cybercriminals will have incentives to invest heavily in their businesses as payoffs continue to grow and enforcement lags. New cybercrime monetization channels continue to emerge — from concentrating efforts on manual transactions and listings in markets, to focusing on sales of credentials, network access, and more-sophisticated fraud. Drawing inspiration from legitimate online businesses, cybercriminals are increasingly using automation to help move stock off their virtual shelves and collect data to better monetize deliverables, and they will continue to do so.
Moreover, with the commoditization of cybercrime-as-a-service, organizations are naturally seeking differentiation to make their services stand out in a crowded market. Instead of selling services or data listings on an individual basis, threat actors will put more effort into building lasting business-like enterprises — investing more in branding, customer support and even intuitive user interfaces.
The Bottom Line
It's time to recognize that the Dark Web operates just like any other market — supply and demand, clients and suppliers. While it might not be regulated, the market is checked by the invisible hand of cybercrime monetization channels. Given this, threat actors will continue to grow enterprise-style businesses that evolve just like their legitimate counterparts. The days of cybercriminals doing the dirty work themselves using homemade or bare-bones tools may well be nearing an end. In 2020, cybercriminals will choose professionally designed tools based on reputation, brand, logo, and even slick marketing material. The era of the branded cybercriminal may well be upon us.