Don’t Toy With The Dark Web, Harness It

The Dark Web’s sinister allure draws outsized attention, but time-strapped security teams would benefit from knowing what’s already circulating in places they don’t need Tor or I2P to find.

High-profile data breaches are once again thrusting the Dark Web into the spotlight, spurring security professionals online to better understand how these conversations might be relevant to the security threat to their organizations. But this renewed – and, in some cases, potentially unhealthy – interest has its own dark side.

To successfully harness the Dark Web as part of a complete threat intelligence program, organizations need to develop a keener understanding of the environment and how cyber criminals are leveraging it. Here are three common misconceptions:

Misconception #1: Almost all cybercrime takes place on the Dark Web.
For those who appreciate its risks and pitfalls, the Dark Web can be a great source for understanding threat actors and their techniques. However those who narrowly fixate on it are likely to be blind to more relevant threats and information sources existing elsewhere.

For example, in the past six months, security researchers at Digital Shadows observed nearly 3,000 instances of credit cards being offered for sale on the visible, surface web. Sites like Reddit and Pastebin — much easier to browse than the Dark Web’s corners — increasingly contain stolen account information.

Social media platforms likewise hold important clues; we’ve witnessed examples of drugs for sale on Instagram. Social media often contains vital clues as to the identity of would-be criminals. The Dark Web’s sinister allure draws outsized attention, but many time-strapped security teams would benefit from knowing what is already circulating in places they do not need networks such as Tor or I2P to find.

Misconception #2: Scouring the Dark Web is key to understanding my attack surface.
Researching the Dark Web can be a valuable activity for security professionals, but the reality is that this resource will not be relevant to all organizations. For example, large enterprises, particularly in the financial services industry, are more susceptible to having their customers’ credentials and card details sold in criminal marketplaces as this is readily monetized. These marketplaces exist in the dark, surface and deep webs. Alternatively, smaller organizations should instead look towards the surface and deep web, including social media and traditional search engine platforms, to understand their exposure and attack surfaces.

Search engines are also valuable tools for organizations that want a better understanding of their attack surface. There are many files indexed by search engines, which should not be. These files are often exposed inadvertently by employees, suppliers or third parties, which hackers can harvest and exploit either as part of hostile reconnaissance or bundled together and branded as a data breach. Sensitive information such as email addresses, embarrassing information on employees and technology, can be found on social media and leave an organization exposed. Spoof LinkedIn profiles, over-sharing, and misconfigured privacy settings are all exploited for attackers’ reconnaissance.

Misconception #3: There’s no harm in just poking around.
Not all content on the Dark Web is immediately accessible; it can take considerable time, expertise and manual effort to glean useful information. More importantly, impromptu Dark Web reconnaissance can inadvertently expose an organization to greater security risks because of unknown malicious files that can infiltrate the corporate network.

Additionally, several criminal forums on the Dark Web utilize a “vouching” system, similar to a private members club, that might require an investigator to commit a crime or at least stray into significantly unethical territory to gain access to the content.

Lastly, while it can be tempting to download files pertaining to purported breaches, you should be mindful that taking receipt of stolen goods is a felony in the United States (18 U.S.C. § 2315) and can leave you exposed. Beyond that, your activities may disrupt the legitimate work of legal authorities engaged in enforcement actions.

At the end of the day, there are many legitimate purposes for harnessing the Dark Web, but only when security teams take steps to empower their efforts, not endanger them. To cover the basics, organizations should:

  • Have essential security tools and procedures in place to safeguard data.
  • Understand threats compromising peers and the weaknesses these may reveal in your company.
  • Search the public and deep web to observe how hostile threat actors perceive your organization.
  • Discover where your key information assets, employee credentials or other sensitive documents are being exposed online.
  • Weigh the benefits and enhanced protection from the intelligence you gather against the impact on your limited information security resources. 

James Chappell has over twelve years of technical information security experience, acting as an advisor to large private sector and government organizations. Much of his work has involved counteracting the growth of crime and fraud in computer networks and developing … View Full Bio

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