The increasing use of technology and the Internet in all aspects of daily life puts everyday citizens at risk of becoming targets of cybercriminals.
As society comes to rely more and more on the Internet, the dangers posed by different types of cybercrime have become very real threats. These threats come in a variety of forms and target different features of the Internet, technological devices and their users.
Cyberthreats are constantly evolving and changing, therefore the types of threats outlined here should not be considered as an exhaustive or absolute list. See our advice on how to stay safe online.
In addition to the threats posed by cybercrime itself, cyber-enabled crimes such as financial crime, crimes against children and fraud also pose distinct threats to the public.
Malware, bots, botnets
But there are large sections of the Internet which search engines cannot detect – this is known as the ‘deep web’. Whilst most of what exists in the deep web is not dangerous information, it can be deliberately misused by those with malicious intent. This hidden part of the Internet where criminals act undetected is called the ‘Darknet’.
By using specialized software to conceal their activities and guarantee anonymity, criminals can conduct illegal enterprises on the Darknet such as selling drugs or weapons, illicit gambling, and trading in counterfeit identity documents or child abuse material.
These underground criminal activities came to the public’s attention in 2013 when the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) shut down the illicit online black market site Silk Road, which was operating in the Darknet.
The complex encryption and anonymization tools used to access and communicate over the Darknet create many challenges for law enforcement in identifying and locating the criminals who seek to hide in the anonymity it provides
Short for ‘malicious software’, this is a broad term to describe any computer programme designed to harm the legitimate user of a computer. Malware may be created for the purpose of a range of criminal activities, such as:
- Data theft;
- Obtaining personal information from a victim;
- Disruption or monitoring of a system;
- To take control of a device for a criminal purpose such as ransomware or creating a botnet.
Bots and botnets
A botnet is created when a device has been infected with a piece of malware which allows a cybercriminal to gain complete control over that device, usually without their knowledge. The cybercriminal can then use the victim’s computer to carry out attacks on other computers and networks, knowing the attack may only be traced back to the infected computer.
All the infected computers are controlled remotely by cybercriminals who can use the botnet in many ways:
- Launching a ‘denial of service’ attack: using the botnet-connected computers to access a server, or a website, all at once, causing it to overload or shut down;
- Sending massive amounts of spam e-mails;
- Downloading or distributing other malware, such as programmes which log keystrokes.
Tor – The Onion Router
The Tor network is a group of volunteer-operated servers that allows people to improve their privacy and security on the Internet. Tor’s users employ this network by connecting through a series of virtual tunnels rather than making a direct connection, thus allowing both organizations and individuals to share information over public networks without compromising their privacy. Along the same line, Tor is an effective censorship circumvention tool, allowing its users to reach otherwise blocked destinations or content. Tor can also be used as a building block for software developers to create new communication tools with built-in privacy features.
Individuals use Tor to keep websites from tracking them and their family members, or to connect to news sites, instant messaging services, or the like when these are blocked by their local Internet providers. Tor’s hidden services let users publish web sites and other services without needing to reveal the location of the site. Individuals also use Tor for socially sensitive communication: chat rooms and web forums for rape and abuse survivors, or people with illnesses.
Journalists use Tor to communicate more safely with whistleblowers and dissidents. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) use Tor to allow their workers to connect to their home website while they’re in a foreign country, without notifying everybody nearby that they’re working with that organization.
Groups such as Indymedia recommend Tor for safeguarding their members’ online privacy and security. Activist groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) recommend Tor as a mechanism for maintaining civil liberties online. Corporations use Tor as a safe way to conduct competitive analysis, and to protect sensitive procurement patterns from eavesdroppers. They also use it to replace traditional VPNs, which reveal the exact amount and timing of communication. Which locations have employees working late? Which locations have employees consulting job-hunting websites? Which research divisions are communicating with the company’s patent lawyers?
A branch of the U.S. Navy uses Tor for open source intelligence gathering, and one of its teams used Tor while deployed in the Middle East recently. Law enforcement uses Tor for visiting or surveilling web sites without leaving government IP addresses in their web logs, and for security during sting operations.
The variety of people who use Tor is actually part of what makes it so secure. Tor hides you among the other users on the network, so the more populous and diverse the user base for Tor is, the more your anonymity will be protected.
Why we need Tor
Source: Tor Project Org
There’s a place lurking beneath the Internet you use every day.
It’s a hidden underbelly, home to both rogues and political activists, and accessed only with the help of specially designed anonymizing software. It’s a secretive place, where Arab Spring dissidents can hide their digital tracks, a place where whistleblowers can reach out safely to scoop-seeking media outlets. And, yes, it’s also a dangerous place, where a lot of illicit, underground nastiness occurs.
There, you’ll find a society that lurks intentionally in the blind spots of search engines. Some call it the Darknet. All call it hard to reach—though it’s hardly impregnable, given last week’s news of security vulnerabilities, as well as site takedowns following the arrest of an alleged pornographer. Like a demilitarized zone or a lawless land, it’s not a place most people visit—nor should they. But by the time you’re done reading this article, you’ll know more about this shadowy, parallel online universe than Bing or Yahoo ever will.
The Darknet ain’t your grandma’s Internet—but its depths hide both the noble and the treacherous.
Delving into the Darknet
Darknets are small niches of the “Deep Web,” which is itself a catch-all term for the assorted Net-connected stuff that isn’t discoverable by the major search engines. (BrightPlanet has a stellar Deep Web primer.)
Most of the flotsam and jetsam found in the Deep Web are unintentional cast-offs: dynamic database queries and odd file formats that search engines aren’t equipped to deal with. Darknets, on the other hand, deliberately hide from the prying eyes of the searchable Web. They cloak themselves in obscurity with specialized software that guarantees encryption and anonymity between users, as well as protocols or domains that the average webizen will never stumble across.
Your chances of finding these clandestine networks, much less specific content on them, are virtually nil unless someone already in the know points you in the right direction.
And it’s no wonder why. Consider Onionland, the major Darknet hiding inside the anonymity-protecting Tor network, which was the focus of last week’s hubbub. (Fun fact: The Onionland name pays homage to Tor, which was originally an acronym for “The Onion Router.”)
Diving into Onionland—after you’ve installed the proper software and taken the proper safety precautions; more on that later—is awfully reminiscent of using the Surface Web of yesteryear. Since search engines don’t trawl the depths of the Darknet, the best guide to its realms are simple link directories.
Yes, the underbelly of the Web has yet to move beyond the old Yahoo days.
Even the major directories aren’t completely reliable. Like a swamp, Onionland is constantly shifting, with Hidden Services appearing and vanishing on a daily basis. (Again, more on Hidden Services later.) A lot of sites listed on Onionland directories are simply gone now. Heck, even the directories themselves sometimes shift URLs, and you have to track down their new location, either within Onionland itself or on the .onion subreddit.
That said, three common Onionland starting points are The Hidden Wiki, TorDir, and TorLinks. All the directories in Onionland always point to Torch as a search engine of onions, but it never works properly. You can get to Torch’s front page just fine, but individual searches time out. Every. Single. Time.
Once you’re on a directory, one thing becomes overwhelmingly obvious: A lot of dirty, downright illegal stuff happens in Onionland. You’ll quickly find links to credit-card scammers, forged documents and currency, weapons dealers, gambling sites, marketplaces for every vice imaginable, hacker havens, the types of illegal and disgusting porn that get chased off the Surface Web, and even the notorious Silk Road trading post.
But wait! Don’t close your browser in disgust quite yet. Do be smart about your browsing—we have more security tips on the next page—and above all else, remember Onionland’s anarchistic nature.
- Tip #1: You don’t have to click anything you don’t want to. You aren’t likely to stumble across questionable stuff unless you specifically seek it out.
- Tip #2: Remember that thanks to the underlying Tor technology, this Darknet is truly anonymous. If something for sale on the Darknet catches your eye, ask yourself: Are the services listed in this major Onionland wiki legit, or are they fronts for people looking to separate fools from their Bitcoins? Many of the scarier listings in directories are flat-out scams.
The bright side of the Darknet
But the same anonymity that makes Onionland a haven for weapons dealers and perverts also makes it a bastion of a more noble cause: free speech.
Many countries lack the equivalent of the United States’ First Amendment. Darknets grant everyone the power to speak freely without fear of censorship or persecution. According to the Tor Project, anonymizing Hidden Services have been a refuge for dissidents in Lebanon, Mauritania, and Arab Spring nations; hosted blogs in countries where the exchange of ideas is frowned upon; and served as mirrors for websites that attract governmental or corporate angst, such as GlobalLeaks, Indymedia, and Wikileaks.
The New Yorker’s Strongbox, which allows whistleblowers to securely and anonymously communicate with the magazine, is a Tor Hidden Service. The Tor Project says that authorities offer similarly secure tip lines, and that some militaries even use Hidden Services to create online secure command and control centers.
Delve deeper into the Darknet, and you’ll find a veritable cornucopia of services dedicated to spreading the word: secure messaging and file-sharing tools, libraries chock-full of political literature, anonymous boards dedicated to intelligent debate, and much, much more. You’ll even find a completely anonymous mirror for the DuckDuckGo search engine, in case you’re worried about Google or Microsoft looking over your shoulder while you surf the Surface Web.
And those are all things that you can find from the major directories. Imagine the secrets flowing even deeper, beyond the signposts and outside links. None of Onionland’s positive benefits—none—would be possible if it didn’t offer a level of security that made the service so appealing to less savory types.
That’s the rub about free speech: Sometimes people say and do things you don’t like.
Intrigued? Read on to learn more about the technical aspects of Onionland, and the tools and precautions you’ll need to visit the Darknet yourself.