Dark Web Becomes a Haven for Targeted Hits

Malware on the Dark Web is increasingly being customized to target specific organizations and executives.

Malicious services offered on the Dark Web are more like precision arms than blunt instruments, and they're taking aim at the biggest of businesses.

New research, conducted by Dr. Mike McGuire of the University of Surrey, shows four in 10 Dark Web vendors are selling targeted hacking services aimed at FTSE 100 and Fortune 500 businesses. Among the information and services McGuire found on the Dark Web, access to corporate networks is sold openly, with 60% of vendors approached by researchers offering access to more than 10 business networks.

Still, sites and messaging facilities on the Dark Web have become havens for those seeking and selling custom-built, highly targeted malware, McGuire writes in "Into the Web of Profit: Behind the Dark Net Black Mirror Threats Against the Enterprise," the third in a series. If you want to target a particular industry, organization, or executive, it doesn't take long to find vendors willing to help meet your nefarious needs.

"The rise of customized malware-as-a-service is nothing more than the natural evolution of the commercialization of malware authors and other malicious actors," says Nathan Wenzler, senior director of cybersecurity at Moss Adams. Online criminal activity has become industrialized, he says, with those on both sides of the transactions treating it just like legitimate business deals.

"Once you've reached that point of creating a product, which in this case is malware, the next logical step is to provide the equivalent of professional services to your customers," Wenzler says.

What we're seeing in these Dark Web sites is an almost inevitable consequence of the market's maturity. Ray DeMeo, co-founder and COO at Virsec, points out that the criminal world is become more sophisticated, efficient, and compartmentalized, just like legitimate business. As a result, "Specialists are focusing on specific pieces of the supply chain, such as password theft, memory attacks, ransomware, and selling personal data in bulk," DeMeo says. "As part of this, many resources on the Dark Web have become Amazon-like, relying on building 'good' reputations with high-quality stolen data."

One of the consequences of malware and attacks heading to the commodity "as-a-service" model is that it now takes much less expertise to launch a relatively sophisticated attack. "[Cybercrime is] becoming more transactional in nature and lowering the barriers to entry for those who may not have the technical skill to develop a new malware variant," says Harrison Van Riper, strategy and research analyst at Digital Shadows. "Those with less technical skill can still have access to damaging malware for a reasonable price."

That price, which McGuire found ranged from $150 for a relatively simple piece of malware to more than $1,500 for software designed to target specific ATMs, often includes performance guarantees and sophisticated customer service. Encrypted messaging services like Telegraph are frequently used as the medium for support, though some malware networks have communicated completely in the clear over YouTube, Instagram, or other social network comments.

All of this is possible because malware and attack authors have swung their production to agile development methods, up to and including full DevOps, Wenzler says. "These groups already have automated much of the malware creation and management processes as it is, so creating custom attacks for a higher price is a relatively trivial thing for them to do and comes with the benefit of increasing their financial gains without needing to expend much effort," he says.

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About the Author(s)

Curtis Franklin, Principal Analyst, Omdia

Curtis Franklin Jr. is Principal Analyst at Omdia, focusing on enterprise security management. Previously, he was senior editor of Dark Reading, editor of Light Reading's Security Now, and executive editor, technology, at InformationWeek, where he was also executive producer of InformationWeek's online radio and podcast episodes

Curtis has been writing about technologies and products in computing and networking since the early 1980s. He has been on staff and contributed to technology-industry publications including BYTE, ComputerWorld, CEO, Enterprise Efficiency, ChannelWeb, Network Computing, InfoWorld, PCWorld, Dark Reading, and ITWorld.com on subjects ranging from mobile enterprise computing to enterprise security and wireless networking.

Curtis is the author of thousands of articles, the co-author of five books, and has been a frequent speaker at computer and networking industry conferences across North America and Europe. His most recent books, Cloud Computing: Technologies and Strategies of the Ubiquitous Data Center, and Securing the Cloud: Security Strategies for the Ubiquitous Data Center, with co-author Brian Chee, are published by Taylor and Francis.

When he's not writing, Curtis is a painter, photographer, cook, and multi-instrumentalist musician. He is active in running, amateur radio (KG4GWA), the MakerFX maker space in Orlando, FL, and is a certified Florida Master Naturalist.

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