Drugs, weapons and credit card information for sale online: Experts warn about growing threat of dark Web

The dark web offers a wide range or merchandise for sale, just like any other online store, but with one important exception: Nearly everything listed is illegal.
The dark web offers a wide range or merchandise for sale, just like any other online store, but with one important exception: Nearly everything listed is illegal.PHOTO: REUTERS

SINGAPORE - The website looks plain, just some black text on a white background with low resolution photos - like those created during the early days of the Internet.

It offers a wide range of merchandise for sale, just like any other online store, but with one important exception: Nearly everything listed - drugs, weapons and stolen credit card details - is illegal.

Welcome to the dark Web, a part of the Internet where the wild things are - a part that cannot be found through on normal search engines or using the browsers most people have on their phones and computers.

It is a seedy part of the Internet unknown to many, accessed through special software that cloaks users' locations.

The spotlight was shone on the dark Web here last month when a former airline cabin crew member was jailed for three years because he went on a shopping spree with stolen credit and debit card details that he bought online, among other crimes.

It was the first time that a dark Web-related crime was persecuted in Singapore.

And though such crimes here remain rare, experts and law enforcement say it is a growing threat.

Superintendent Soo Lai Choon, head of the police's technology crime division, said that while the dark Web does not change the way crimes are being committed, it creates access to prohibited items such as weapons, drugs and stolen credit card details.

"Accessing the dark Web is as normal as accessing the normal webpages, but almost all transactions on the dark Web are illegal," he said.

Others warn that it can sometimes magnify the scale of crimes.

Mr Rick McElroy, a strategist at digital security firm Carbon Black, said that the dark Web "enables criminal rings to diversify from physical crimes to cybercrimes".

He added: "It allows for criminals with little technical knowledge to become cyber criminals faster and with better efficiency."

For example, those going online to buy ransomware - software that allows hackers to hijack computers and lock them up until a ransom is paid - may find that the software comes with instructions.

In a report released in October, his firm found that the marketplace for ransomware on the dark Web has grown 25 times between 2016 and 2017, from US$249,287 (S$334,493) to US$6,237,248 ($8,367,829).

Locally, a September report by the Cyber Security Agency (CSA) called ransomware one of the biggest cybersecurity threats to businesses and individuals today. The Singapore Computer Emergency Response Team received reports of 19 cases in 2016, up from the two cases the year before.

But the number may be severely under-reported as companies may be afraid of the harm to their reputation, CSA's report said, adding that "some reports noted that there may be as many as 550 ransomware-related attacks every day in Singapore".

The anonymity that the dark Web provides - meant to protect whistle-blowers from persecution - can also be misused to offer perpetrators better protection instead.

For example, it can allow insiders looking to trade and sell corporate secrets to remain hidden from governments and employers, Mr McElroy said.

But most warn that the anonymity on the dark Web offers criminals little protection from police or the law.

It is no different from using, say, encrypted e-mails to plan a crime, said Mr Gilbert Leong, a senior partner at Dentons Rodyk.

It would not be any different when one trades in drugs using coded language or signs on the World Wide Web or on the dark Web.

"The point is that our law forbids the trafficking of drugs regardless of the way it is traded," he added.

Mr Bryan Tan, a partner at law firm Pinsent Masons, said criminals will also be aware that law enforcement will prowl the dark Web for illicit activities.

As Supt Soo put it: "We have ways to try and trace (hackers' identities on the dark Web)."

What is the dark Web and how does it work?

It is not illegal to access the dark Web, but transactions there - such as buying stolen information, hacking tools and drugs - are, said lawyers.

The dark Web resides in online spaces that popular browsers cannot enter easily, and it tries its best to keep it that way.

Users have to install special software on their computers to access websites that may disappear as suddenly as they pop up. Access to forums and marketplaces on the dark Web may require the user to be a regular contributor or referred by someone trusted by the circle.

"The dark Web is a special club," said Mr Azly J. Nor, 30, who runs tech consultancy Blackwilder and has used the dark Web for its encrypted communications.

Website addresses are posted in these forums that are open to selected members, he added.

 
 

The addresses add another layer of security: They are garbled numbers and alphabets. For example, Silk Road, a now-defunct marketplace for drugs, was at http://silkroadvb5piz3r.onion.

Dark Web sites are not indexed by popular search engines and they also do not have links that transport users in and out of them.

Currently, the most popular way to access the dark Web is through The Onion Router (Tor), an Internet privacy service that can decrypt dark Web sites - a function that other browsers such as Chrome, Internet Explorer and Safari do not have.

Users who go through the trouble to get Tor do so to stay anonymous. Tor started as a project that allows whistle-blowers who live in oppressive states to share information anonymously.

Tor hides its users' identities by sending data through three other servers before the message reaches its destination.

Speed is sometimes slower as a result, said Mr Nor.

But the anonymity that Tor provides also attracts people who want to buy and sell illegal products such as drugs, weapons and stolen credit card details in a digital black market. Under Singapore's law, it is illegal to buy these illicit items online.

Before the authorities in the United States took down Silk Road in October 2013, it was known as the Amazon for drugs. Another digital black marketplace called AlphaBay was shut down the same way in July this year.

Payments are made using bitcoin, a digital currency.

According to tech magazine Wired, AlphaBay, with about 300,000 listings of contraband items, made between US$600,000 and US$800,000 a day.