Darlings of the Dark Web: Who is Selling Your Data?

“I am Oz, the great and powerful” – the ominous words of a weak wizard foretold our future. And who was Oz? A regular guy posing as the leader of a land that does not exist. But the Emerald City was no Dark Web. And even though it exists in technological space alone, the Dark Web is real. With people using code names wielding their power within it. What people, you ask? All types of people.

But back up a bit. What is the Dark Web? And how does it differ from the Deep Web?  This is easy. It goes like this…

When you step onto the web in your daily life, you’re most likely going right to the Surface Web, also know as the Visible Web or Indexed Web. This is the web that is available to the general public.1 Here you find all of your Google searches and the portals to your varied accounts. Now log on to your email. BAM! You’re in the Deep Web, also called the Invisible Web. It’s where the privacy curtain falls, which is a good thing. The Deep Web contains the coded content not indexed by search engines.2 It is password-protected for members – you wouldn’t want everyone reading your email, right? – or subscribers, like anything behind a paywall – let’s keep that Amazon or Netflix account locked. Even a web page that requires typing a query within a search box, such as one for court records, is Deep Web travel.3

Okay, you’ve got that, right? Right. Moving on.

When you’re talking about the Darknet, you’re talking about the Dark Web. Your standard browser (Chrome, Safari, Firefox…) won’t take you there. The most likely portal is via Tor software, from the Tor Project4 – a government-funded nonprofit created in the mid-1990s by the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, and publicly launched in 2003.5 Once you’re on the Tor network, information is encrypted, so your browsing remains anonymous. Created for anonymity, Tor offers many positive uses, (like free speech without government firewalls – i.e. China; even Facebook provides Tor access for safety and security6), and most Tor browsing is entirely legal and legitimate. “Visits to those dark web sites account for only 1.5 percent of all Tor traffic, according to the software’s creators at the non-profit Tor Project.”7

Tor’s “hidden services” – special websites that may only be accessed through Tor –

are the most popular darknet sites. Cloaked in Tor’s anonymity, it is difficult to track who visits them.8 This is where the trouble begins. Information you thought was secure, your personal or your company’s information, is being traded down there. Dark sites sell stolen credit cards, social security numbers, lists of user information collected off of Yahoo, LinkedIn, Twitter, Tumblr, MySpace9 and so on, forged documents, counterfeit currency, and much more.

But who’s behind this? Where are they coming from?

The most high profile take down of dark web activity happened in 2013 with the FBI arrest of Ross Ulbricht, founder of the notorious criminal-traffic Silk Road site.10 When Ulbricht’s uneventful background11 is considered, it’s clear that most anyone can don the cloak of criminality, and perhaps convince themselves that they are doing it for the greater good. Ulbricht was an American, hailing from Texas, with Libertarian leanings. Other recent arrests have involved entire rings, like the FBI’s Operation Shrouded Horizon which charged, arrested or searched 70 hackers globally on the Darkode site in 2015. They were hit with wire fraud, money laundering and conspiring to commit computer fraud. Their trail of crimes included compromising Microsoft and Sony, as well as swiping data from more than 20 million victims.12

Then there were those who brought down Dyn with distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks in October, 2016. The networks of zombie computers that hurled astounding amounts of terabits per second of data at the Dyn-managed servers, ultimately disrupting Twitter, Spotify, Netflix and Airbnb, were controlled by a collective called the New World Hackers. Members identifying themselves as “Prophet” and “Zain” claimed on Twitter that more than 10 members participated in that attack. They also mentioned that about 30 people have access to their Twitter, with 20 members in Russia, 10 in China, and “Prophet” identifying as being in India. One additional New World Hacking member, “Ownz”, came forward, claiming to be in London, and 19 years old. 13

Russia and China are repeatedly identified as ultimate sources of major attacks. Security technologist Bruce Schneier (called a “security guru” by The Economist) noted the two nations in a September, 2016 article.14 It’s the nature of the attacks that has him wondering. Probing attacks in addition to DDoS style are “testing the core defensive capabilities of the companies that provide critical Internet services,” he claims. Schneier goes on to state “It doesn’t seem like something an activist, criminal, or researcher would do. Profiling core infrastructure is common practice in espionage and intelligence gathering. It’s not normal for companies to do that. Furthermore, the size and scale of these probes—and especially their persistence—points to state actors. It feels like a nation’s military cyber command trying to calibrate its weaponry in the case of cyberwar.”15 It’s either that or one of these scenarios: A request for money is denied, so the extortionist unleashed extreme force, or hacktivists decided to exhibit the bite behind their bark.16 No one knows just yet.

There is one consistent factor that calls to be addressed: age and knowledge. We have seen that these powerful perpetrators are seasoned cyber players by puberty. James Kosta was convicted for hacking banks, military computers and more at 14; Jonathan James was the first juvenile in the US jailed for hacking; he was 15.17 Ownz, of New World Hackers, is presumably 19. Another notorious name to have arrived on the dark web in 2016 is Tessa88, a Russian woman who also appears to be young.18  Should this surprise anyone? Not at all. The kids are in the game now, with elementary-school the jumping-in point. In 2014 the MIT released a free iPad app that teaches children from 5-8 to learn to code.19 And “code literacy” is a new way of looking at advancements in learning.20 Soon growing up coding will be as much a component of understanding the worlds as the transition from analog to digital clocks. It’s where we are as a society. The most important thing we can do is teach them responsibility, that they’re part of the greater picture, even if that picture seems distant through a screen.