The Wild Wild dark Web

ST ILLUSTRATION: SIMON ANG

Shady part of Internet where illegal items and data are traded a growing threat, say experts

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 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 after he went on a shopping spree with stolen credit and debit card details he bought online, among other crimes. It was the first time that a dark Web-related crime was prosecuted 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.

  • 25 Number of times the marketplace for ransomware on the dark Web has grown between last year and this year, according to a report in October by digital security firm Carbon Black.

    19 Number of reports of ransomware cases the Singapore Computer Emergency Response Team received last year, up from the two cases the year before. But the number may be severely under-reported.

    550 Some reports noted there may be up to this many ransomware-related attacks in Singapore every day, said a Cyber Security Agency report.

Mr Rick McElroy, a strategist at digital security firm Carbon Black, said 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 in October, Mr McElroy's firm found the marketplace for ransomware on the dark Web had grown 25 times between last year and this year, from US$249,287 (S$333,951) to about US$6.2 million.

Locally, a September report by the Cyber Security Agency (CSA) called ransomware one of the biggest cyber security threats today. The Singapore Computer Emergency Response Team received reports of 19 cases last year, up from the two cases the year before.

But the cases may be severely under-reported as firms 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 dark Web. "The point is that our law forbids the trafficking of drugs regardless of the way it is traded," he said.

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

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

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 28, 2017, with the headline 'The Wild Wild dark Web'. Print Edition | Subscribe