Cybercrime trends point to greater sophistication, stealthier malware, more encryption

A sobering think-tank report on the evolution of cybercrime and the supporting marketplaces on the dark side of the Internet depicts a criminal complex growing more sophisticated in software tools and its ability to hide from law enforcement.

Over the last decade, what started out as ad hoc networks of individuals breaking into computer systems for notoriety has become "a playground of financially driven, highly organized, and sophisticated groups," according to the RAND Corp. report released Tuesday.

To the detriment of law enforcement, the criminal enterprises are geographically spread out, diverse and hidden under the cloak of anonymity networks, such as Tor. They are also adopting at a fast pace encryption for communications and cryptocurrency for making payments anonymously.

"These are highly sophisticated and organized groups often connected to traditional organized crime groups and sometimes with nation states," Lillian Ablon, lead co-author of the report, told CSOonline.

Criminals are pursuing greater secrecy as the result of high-profile busts, such as the takedown last fall of the Silk Road criminal marketplace and the arrest of its alleged owner and mastermind Ross William Ulbricht. Criminals are vetting potential partners more closely, but once someone gets in the circle, it's easy to begin participating and profiting, the report said.

Within the "darknet," developers are constantly improving exploit kits and malware to steal credit card numbers and personal data from computers. Since 2006, the number of new exploit kits has grown from 1 to 33 last year, according to the report.

Services available to criminals include hacking-for-hire and botnets for sending spam or launching distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks.

These criminal organizations can be more profitable than the illegal drug trade, RAND found. Because the worldwide distribution of tools, services and loot is done electronically, the requirements for establishing a criminal operation is negligible when compared to smuggling, distributing and selling drugs in the physical world.

The cat-and-mouse game between cybercriminals and law enforcement is one in which both sides are constantly changing tactics and technology to adapt to changes in each other's operations.

"Law enforcement really is getting better, but so are the participants in these markets," Ablon said.

The criminal groups are very resilient, she said. When marketplaces are taken down and individuals are arrested, others take their place within days.

"Business continues as normal," Ablon said.

The RAND report provides some predictions for the black market. The operators of marketplaces are expected to ratchet up the vetting of potential participants and increase the use of cryptocurrencies. Cybercriminals in general are expected to focus more on the anonymity capabilities of malware and bolster encryption to protect communications and transactions.

"Participants will employ innovative methods and tools to help obfuscate, encrypt, or make a transaction quicker, easier to use, and harder to find," the report said.

Social networks and mobile devices will continue to be growth areas for criminal activity. Hackers are also expected to direct their attention to the Internet of Things, which will create a much larger pool of potential targets. People who normally patch their computers may forget to patch everything else they own that is network-connected.

Attackers will continuously innovate and change tactics. Multi-step attacks will become more prevalent. Examples include the use of a DDoS attack to hide the actual exfiltration of data from a network. The report also predicts more malware capable of evading analyses.

Subscribing to hacking services is expected to grow in popularity. Such services will lower the bar for getting involved in cybercrime by letting criminals outsource the technical requirements.

The RAND Corp. based the study, entitled "Markets for Cybercrime Tools and Stolen Data," on more than two-dozen interviews with cybersecurity and related experts, including academics, security researchers, news reporters, security vendors and law enforcement officials. Juniper Networks sponsored the study.

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