Dark Web Sites Losing Out to Encrypted Chat Apps?

October 14, 2020

With several Dark Web marketplaces falling to either law enforcement successes or to their own administrators’ “exit scams,” it was predicted vendors and buyers of illegal goods would shift to another alternative, one that promises end-to-end encryption. However, Bank Info Security explains “Why Encrypted Chat Apps Aren’t Replacing Darknet Markets.” To be sure, some criminals do use these apps, but they have been running into some disadvantages. Writer Mathew J. Schwartz specifies:

“One is the challenge of finding – or marketing – goods and services being provided via chat apps. Fear about the reliability of legitimate platforms – and of the risk of getting sold out – is another factor. ‘By trusting a legitimate third-party application’s encryption and anonymity policies, threat actors are placing their trust in non-criminals,’ the ‘Photon Research Team’ at digital risk protection firm Digital Shadows tells me. Criminals typically prefer to avoid such situations. … Chat platforms’ smaller scale can also be an unwelcome limitation for criminals because fewer customers means lower profits for sellers or chat-channel administrators. ‘Most instant messaging platforms tend to be smaller in terms of number of participants and also geographically focused or limited by language – limiting the reach,’ Raveed Laeb and Victoria Kivilevich, respectively product manager and threat intelligence analyst at Israeli cyber threat intelligence monitoring firm Kela, tell me. ‘Another limit is that many chat channels focus on one subject – meaning that one channel features drugs, another one offers enrolls and so on. Thus, it lowers potential profits for the channel’s admins,’ they say.”

It is true, legitimate encrypted apps have plenty of incentive to cooperate with the authorities. So why not build an alternative by criminals for criminals? Some have tried that, with networks like BlackBox, Phantom Secure, and EncroChat, all of which were summarily busted by law enforcement. There are likely more out there, but they may suffer the same fate.

In the end, it seems many dark-market vendors are sticking with the marketplaces. It makes sense in our view—we see the two avenues as complements to one another, anyway. Meanwhile, though, certain marketplaces are abandoning some of their traditional sellers: We’re told illegal drugs are being banned at these sites in favor of digitally transmittable products like malware, stolen databases, login credentials, and other cybercrime tools and services. There is the absence of complications caused by physical packages, but these products also exist in a grey area in many jurisdictions. (We note no mention is made of other items of high concern, like child pornography or weapons.) Schwartz supposes admins believe ceasing to market illegal drugs will make their sites smaller targets. Perhaps?

Cynthia Murrell, October 14, 2020


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