The Biggest Dark Web Threats in 2024

Take me to the key takeaways...
By Joe Aucott
April 5, 2024

The dark web remains one of the most enigmatic components of the internet. Hidden from conventional search engines and accessible only through specialised tools, the dark web offers a high degree of anonymity. While this creates a space for free expression and serves as a critical shield for whistleblowers and activists under oppressive regimes, it also doubles as a formidable tool for illegal activities.

The veil of secrecy it provides makes it a preferred platform for cybercriminals to orchestrate and execute their operations away from the prying eyes of law enforcement and cybersecurity teams.

As we progress further into 2024, the dark web continues to evolve. It is becoming both more sophisticated and more accessible to would-be criminals with minimal technical expertise. This presents an array of challenges to global security, particularly to organisational infrastructures that might be less equipped to handle the advanced threats emerging from this obscured part of the internet.

Understanding these threats is no longer optional but a necessity for organisations striving to safeguard their data, financial assets, and reputational integrity. The stakes are higher than ever, as the tools and tactics deployed by cyber criminals on the dark web become increasingly advanced. The threats range from ransomware-as-a-service (RaaS) to complex phishing schemes designed to infiltrate and undermine even the most secure systems.

For businesses, the ability to anticipate, detect, and mitigate these threats before they materialise is a crucial component of modern cybersecurity strategy.

The Dark Web in 2024

Before we take a look at the biggest threats we face, there are some key statistics to understand. These figures not only illuminate the scale and nature of the dark web but also provide insight into the motives and objectives of typical cybercriminals. By understanding these key data points, we can better appreciate the challenges posed by the dark web and formulate more effective strategies to counter these threats.

Size and Scope of the Dark Web

  • The deep web and dark web together account for 96% of the total internet, though the dark web constitutes a much smaller portion of this expanse. Despite its relatively modest size, the dark web is a hotbed for a variety of illegal activities.
  • In 2023, the dark web saw over 2.5 million daily visitors on average, a figure that has been steadily increasing, with a jump to 2.7 million daily users by April 2023. This rise indicates a growing familiarity and ease of access among users worldwide.

Geographic Distribution of Users

  • The usage of Tor, a primary access point to the dark web, saw significant changes in geographic distribution in 2023. Germany surpassed the United States as the country with the highest number of daily Tor users, followed by Finland, India, and Russia. This shift highlights changing patterns in how and where the dark web is accessed globally.

Nature of Illegal Activities

  • Nearly 57% of the content on the dark web was deemed illegal in 2020, encompassing areas such as violence, extremist platforms, illegal marketplaces, drug trafficking, and cybercrime forums.
  • The most lucrative illegal digital products on the dark web as of April 2023 include cryptocurrencies, online banking details, and e-wallet information. The dark web facilitates a thriving market for stolen financial details, where, for instance, cybercriminals could purchase credit card details with a $5,000 balance for just $110.

Economic Impact of Cybercrime

  • The United States leads in data breach costs, with breaches costing an average of $9.44 million each. This statistic underscores the high financial stakes involved in protecting digital assets.
  • Ransomware attacks, facilitated by cryptocurrencies, saw an increase of nearly $176 million in 2023 compared to 2022, reflecting the escalating impact of this form of cybercrime.

Dark Web Demographics

  • A survey from Cornell University in 2019 provided insights into the demographics of dark web users, revealing that 84.7% identify as males and 23.5% are aged between 36 and 45 years. This data is crucial for understanding the typical profiles of dark web users, which can help tailor cybersecurity measures more effectively.

These statistics not only illustrate the vastness and complexity of the dark web but also underscore the urgent need for robust cybersecurity measures. Organisations must remain vigilant and proactive in their cybersecurity efforts to counteract the growing menace of dark web-facilitated cybercrime, ensuring they stay ahead in the ongoing battle against digital threats.

Dark Web Threats in 2024

Credential Theft

The dark web serves as a marketplace for stolen and compromised credentials. They are bought and sold with alarming frequency and ease. The Dark Web allows cybercriminals to trade in the digital identities of individuals and organisations, turning stolen usernames, passwords, and other authentication tokens into commodities.

credential theft

How Does Credential Theft Work?

The theft of digital credentials is accomplished through various malicious methods, each exploiting different weaknesses in personal and organisational cybersecurity:

  • Phishing: Cybercriminals use deceptive emails and websites to trick users into providing sensitive information. These phishing attempts often mimic legitimate communications from trusted sources to lure unsuspecting victims.
  • Keyloggers: This type of malware records every keystroke made on an infected device, capturing everything from passwords to confidential communications, without the user’s knowledge.
  • Data Breaches: Large-scale hacks can compromise the data of millions of users at once, providing a treasure trove of credentials that often end up for sale on the dark web.
  • Brute Force Attacks: Attackers use automated software to generate and try a vast number of combinations to crack passwords directly, exploiting weak password practices.

The Role of AI and Automation in Credential Theft

The threat posed by stolen credentials is significantly amplified by the use of automated tools. 'Credential stuffing' involves using automated scripts to test stolen usernames and passwords across various websites and applications. This technique exploits the common practice of password reuse across multiple accounts, increasing the potential for successful account takeovers on a large scale. Such automated attacks can validate stolen credentials at scale, allowing attackers to efficiently exploit any breach, multiplying the harm far beyond the original theft.

Protecting Against Credential Theft

In response to these sophisticated threats, advanced technologies such as AI and Machine Learning are increasingly deployed. These technologies are instrumental in detecting unusual access patterns that may indicate the use of stolen credentials. By analysing vast datasets of login information in real time, AI and ML can identify anomalies that deviate from typical user behaviour patterns.

For example, an unexpected login attempt from a foreign location might trigger a security alert. This use of advanced technologies not only helps in proactive monitoring but also enhances the ability to respond swiftly to potential security breaches, minimising the risk and impact of credential theft.

Identity Theft and Identity-Based Attacks

In recent years, and particularly in 2023, identity-based attacks have surged as a dominant vector for cybercrime. These attacks, which exploit personal and organisational identities, have become more sophisticated with the incorporation of generative AI technologies. Groups like SCATTERED SPIDER are at the forefront, utilising a range of tactics from advanced phishing and social engineering to the acquisition of legitimate credentials from access brokers. The rise of techniques such as SIM-swapping, MFA (Multi-Factor Authentication) bypass, and the misuse of stolen API keys showcases the evolving threat landscape where identity is increasingly at risk.

identity theft

How Do Identity-Based Attacks Work?

Identity-based attacks typically follow a multi-step process that targets the various components of a victim's digital identity:

  1. Acquisition of Credentials: Attackers start by acquiring target credentials through various. This might include purchasing legitimate credentials from dark web access brokers, deploying phishing campaigns using generative AI to create highly convincing fake messages, or through direct social engineering tactics.
  2. Exploitation of Access Tools: With credentials in hand, attackers use techniques like SIM-swapping to take over mobile phone accounts, which are often linked to security protocols like SMS-based MFA. In cases where API keys are compromised, these can provide even deeper access to organisational systems without triggering traditional security alerts.
  3. Bypassing Security Measures: For more fortified targets, attackers may deploy MFA bypass techniques which exploit weaknesses in the MFA implementation, such as flaws in the account recovery processes or using stolen session tokens that avoid the need for MFA entirely.
  4. Establishment of Presence: Once inside the system, the goal is to maintain access as long as possible, often by creating new accounts, changing existing credentials, or deploying backdoors that can be used if the initial entry point is closed.

Protecting Against Identity Theft

Defending against identity-based attacks requires a layered approach to security, encompassing both technological solutions and organisational policies:

  1. Strengthen MFA Implementation: Beyond implementing MFA, ensure it is robust against common bypass techniques. This includes using app-based or hardware token MFA instead of SMS, which is susceptible to SIM-swapping.
  2. Educate on Phishing and Social Engineering: Regular training sessions for employees to recognise and respond to phishing attempts and other forms of social engineering are crucial. Simulated phishing exercises can be particularly effective.
  3. Secure API Keys: Treat API keys like passwords. They should be regularly rotated, audited, and never hard-coded into applications. Access levels should be minimal necessary to perform their function.
  4. Monitor and Respond: Implement continuous monitoring of access patterns and use AI-driven security tools to detect unusual activities that could indicate an identity-based attack. Quick response capabilities can minimise damage by isolating affected systems and revoking compromised credentials swiftly.
  5. Identity Access Management (IAM): Robust IAM policies ensure that only necessary personnel have access to sensitive systems, and that such access is granted based on the principle of least privilege.

Ransomware 2.0

Ransomware 2.0 marks a significantly more destructive and strategically complex challenge than its predecessors. Unlike earlier forms of ransomware that typically encrypted data indiscriminately, Ransomware 2.0 involves more sophisticated, targeted, and financially driven attacks. These attacks not only lock critical data but also leverage it for additional extortion, making them doubly damaging and difficult to combat.

ransomware 2

Key Developments in Ransomware 2.0

Ransomware 2.0 is characterised by several alarming advancements that enhance its effectiveness and damage potential:

  • Targeted Attacks: Cybercriminals now conduct detailed reconnaissance to identify lucrative targets, such as organisations with sensitive data and the financial means to pay substantial ransoms. This approach ensures that the efforts of attackers are more likely to result in significant payoffs.
  • Double Extortion Schemes: Adding to the complexity, this strategy involves both encrypting the victim’s data and extracting sensitive information to threaten its release unless a ransom is paid. This tactic not only compounds the immediate operational impact but also creates long-term reputational and legal risks.
  • Exploitation of Cloud Vulnerabilities: As organisations increasingly rely on cloud-based services, attackers have shifted their focus to exploit these platforms. By targeting cloud infrastructures, attackers can potentially access and compromise multiple organisations through a single attack vector.

How Does Ransomware Work?

Ransomware 2.0 operates by first infiltrating an organisation's network through phishing, exploit kits, or compromised credentials. Once inside, the malware moves laterally to identify and encrypt critical data stores. Simultaneously, it may exfiltrate sensitive data to a secure location controlled by the attackers. Ransom demands are then issued, leveraging the threat of data leakage as additional leverage to extort payment from the victim organisation.

Protecting Against Ransomware 2.0

To effectively counteract the sophisticated threats posed by Ransomware 2.0, organisations need to implement a multi-layered defence strategy:

  • Advanced Detection and Response Capabilities: Employing tools that utilise AI and machine learning can help identify and neutralise threats before they can execute their payload. These tools can detect unusual network behaviour indicative of ransomware activity.
  • Regular Security Assessments: Conducting thorough and regular security assessments, including penetration testing and vulnerability scanning, helps identify and mitigate potential entry points or weak spots in an organisation's digital infrastructure.
  • Robust Data Recovery Plans: Maintaining up-to-date, secure, and redundant data backups in physically separate locations ensures that organisations can restore their data without succumbing to ransom demands. Effective disaster recovery and business continuity plans are essential in reducing downtime and mitigating the impact of an attack.

Ransomware-as-a-Service (RaaS)

Ransomware-as-a-Service (RaaS) is a disruptive innovation in the cybercrime sphere, mimicking the legitimate software-as-a-service (SaaS) model but for malicious purposes. This model has democratised access to ransomware technology, allowing even those with minimal technical expertise to launch ransomware attacks by subscribing to services that provide all the necessary tools and infrastructure.

ransomware illustration

How Does RaaS Work?

Ransomware-as-a-Service (RaaS) operates on a principle similar to legitimate cloud services, where the infrastructure, tools, and even customer support are provided as a packaged service. This enables individuals who may not have technical expertise in developing ransomware to conduct attacks. Here’s a closer look at how RaaS functions:

  1. Access and Subscription: Potential attackers subscribe to a RaaS platform, much like one would subscribe to any software service. The platforms often have tiered pricing models depending on the level of service and capabilities required by the user.
  2. Selection of Ransomware: Once subscribed, users can choose from various ransomware strains available on the platform. These strains are continually updated and refined by the developers to evade detection and increase effectiveness.
  3. Customisation and Deployment: Users can customise the ransomware payloads to target specific vulnerabilities or sectors. RaaS platforms provide tools that facilitate the deployment process, including generating malicious links, crafting deceptive phishing emails, or packaging the ransomware into downloadable files.
  4. Distribution: The attacker then distributes the ransomware via chosen methods. Common distribution techniques include phishing emails, exploiting vulnerabilities in software, or through malicious websites. Some RaaS operations also offer services to help spread the ransomware more effectively, utilising methods like spam campaigns or social engineering tactics.
  5. Execution and Encryption: Once the ransomware infects a system, it executes according to the parameters set by the attacker—encrypting files, displaying ransom messages, and communicating with command and control servers operated by the RaaS provider.
  6. Payment and Profit Sharing: Victims make ransom payments typically in cryptocurrencies to anonymous wallets provided by the RaaS service. Depending on the business model of the RaaS provider, profits are either kept by the attacker or shared with the RaaS developers as per the agreed commission rates.
  7. Support and Updates: Many RaaS platforms offer customer support to their users, providing help with issues ranging from technical problems with the ransomware to advice on maximising ransom payments. Updates are regularly provided to keep the ransomware effective against new security measures.

Protecting Against RaaS

Addressing the threat of RaaS requires a multifaceted approach focused on prevention, preparedness, and response:

  • Regular Updates to Anti-Malware Software and Firewalls: Keeping security software updated is crucial to defend against new ransomware variants that RaaS platforms may deploy.
  • Comprehensive Backup and Disaster Recovery Strategies: Establishing robust backup protocols is essential. This includes regular backups of critical data, stored in multiple, secure, off-site locations to ensure that organisations can restore their systems without paying ransoms.
  • In-depth Employee Cybersecurity Training: Educating employees about the dangers of phishing emails and other common attack vectors is vital. Regular training sessions and simulated phishing exercises can help staff recognise and respond to threats more effectively.

Malicious Software Proliferation

In 2024, the proliferation of malicious software (malware) has reached unprecedented levels, with a marked increase in both sophistication and distribution through the dark web. This trend reflects not only the technical advancements in malware design but also the greater accessibility of these tools to individuals with limited technical expertise. The dark web serves as a critical facilitator in this regard, offering ready-to-use malware kits that enable a wide range of cybercriminal activities.

How It Works

  1. Sophistication and Accessibility:
    • Advanced Malware Kits: The dark web markets provide a variety of sophisticated malware kits that include user manuals, customer support, and sometimes even money-back guarantees. These kits make powerful tools accessible to novice users, effectively lowering the barrier to entry for engaging in cybercrime.
    • Customisation Capabilities: These malware kits often feature customisable elements, allowing attackers to tailor the software to specific targets or objectives. This might include setting parameters for evasion, payload delivery, or stealth operations.
    • Plug-and-Play Functionality: With advancements in user interface design, many malware kits come with a plug-and-play setup that requires minimal technical knowledge, enabling users to launch complex attacks with just a few clicks.
  2. Evasion Techniques:
    • Polymorphism and Metamorphism: Many modern malware programs are designed to alter their code or behavior to evade detection by traditional antivirus software. Polymorphism allows malware to change its code signature every time it replicates, while metamorphism involves rewriting the entire code each time.
    • Obfuscation and Encryption: Advanced malware uses obfuscation techniques to conceal its purpose and evade signature-based detection systems. Encryption is commonly used to hide command and control communications, making it harder for security systems to detect and intercept malicious traffic.
  3. IoT as a Vector:
    • Exploitation of Insecure IoT Devices: The proliferation of IoT devices has introduced numerous vulnerabilities into networks, often due to inadequate security measures, such as weak passwords and unpatched firmware. Malware can exploit these vulnerabilities to gain access to networks or to recruit IoT devices into botnets.
    • Botnet Involvement: Once compromised, IoT devices can be used to launch massive distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks, spread further malware, or carry out spying activities.

Protecting Against Malicious Software

The increasing threat posed by sophisticated malware requires robust and multi-faceted defensive strategies:

  1. Enhanced Detection and Response Systems:
    • Implement advanced threat detection systems that utilise machine learning and behavioural analytics to detect anomalies indicative of malware infection, especially for polymorphic and metamorphic malware.
    • Ensure continuous monitoring of network traffic for signs of encrypted or obfuscated communications that could indicate malware activity.
  2. Regular Software and Firmware Updates:
    • Keep all software and firmware up to date to protect against known vulnerabilities that could be exploited by malware. This is especially critical for IoT devices, which often lag behind in receiving updates.
    • Implement strict security controls on IoT devices, including changing default credentials and disabling unnecessary services.
  3. Employee Training and Awareness:
    • Conduct regular training sessions to educate employees about the risks associated with malware and the best practices for avoiding infection. This includes recognising suspicious behaviour in their devices and understanding the importance of updates.
  4. Network Segmentation:
    • Use network segmentation to limit the spread of malware if an infection occurs. This involves separating critical network infrastructure and data from the parts of the network that interface with potentially insecure IoT devices.

Defeating Dark Web Threats with Dark Web Monitoring & Analysis

Cyber threats are becoming more intricate and hidden, so understanding and monitoring the dark web is vital for proactive cybersecurity. Dark web monitoring is the process of using advanced tools and techniques to scan, monitor, and analyse the underground parts of the internet. This form of analysis is crucial for identifying and mitigating threats before they escalate into full-blown attacks, allowing organisations to stay one step ahead of cybercriminals.

dark web guarding

Capabilities in Dark Web Monitoring

Dark web monitoring offers several key capabilities that can significantly enhance an organisation's security posture by providing deep insights into the cybercriminal ecosystem:

  1. Identification of Stolen Credentials:
    • Continuous Monitoring: Tools that monitor the dark web continuously scan for and detect the exposure of confidential organisational credentials. This monitoring helps in the early detection of breaches, potentially before the stolen data is even used.
    • Automated Alerts: Organisations receive automated alerts when their credentials are discovered on the dark web. These alerts enable quick action, such as forcing password resets and locking down accounts to prevent unauthorised access.
  2. Monitoring Third-Party Vendors:
    • Vendor Risk Management: Dark web analysis tools can extend their monitoring capabilities to include third-party vendors. By keeping track of the security postures of all connected entities, organisations can manage and mitigate risks posed by third parties, which might otherwise be a blind spot in their security strategy.
    • Incident Response Coordination: When a vendor compromise is detected, coordinated incident response strategies can be enacted swiftly, minimising potential damage not just to the third-party systems but also to the primary organisation.
  3. Gathering Comprehensive Threat Intelligence:
    • Real-Time Threat Analysis: Dark web analysis provides insights into emerging threats, from new malware variants and hacking tools to potential data leaks and ransomware campaigns. This real-time intelligence is critical for updating defensive measures in a timely manner.
    • Strategic Security Decisions: Armed with detailed intelligence about cybercriminal tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs), organisations can tailor their security strategies to be more effective against anticipated attacks. This might include strengthening certain defences, deploying specific countermeasures, and training employees on identified threat signatures.

By leveraging dark web monitoring, organisations can gain a valuable perspective into the hidden parts of the internet, turning insights into actionable intelligence and robust defensive strategies. This proactive approach is not just about staying informed but actively engaging in measures that disrupt potential cyber threats before they can manifest into actual harm.

Too Long, Didn't Read:

  • Dual Nature of the Dark Web: The dark web offers a high degree of anonymity, serving as both a haven for free expression and whistleblowing and a platform for illegal activities. It is increasingly becoming a sophisticated and accessible arena for cybercriminals.
  • Rising Threats: The dark web is evolving with threats like ransomware-as-a-service (RaaS) and sophisticated phishing schemes, which are becoming more complex and easier to deploy, posing significant risks to organisational security.
  • Significant Statistics: With over 2.5 million daily visitors in 2023, a figure that is growing, and a high concentration of illegal activities, the dark web is a significant concern. The geographical shift in Tor usage and the rise in illegal digital products sales highlight the expanding influence and reach of the dark web.
  • Financial Impact and User Demographics: Cybercrime, particularly through the dark web, has a severe economic impact, with the U.S. experiencing the highest data breach costs. User demographics, like the predominance of male users aged between 36 and 45, provide insights into the typical profiles of dark web users.
  • Credential and Identity Theft: The dark web facilitates the trade of stolen credentials and identity theft through advanced methods like AI-driven phishing, SIM-swapping, and MFA bypass, necessitating robust defences such as AI and machine learning for anomaly detection, comprehensive cybersecurity training, and stringent MFA protocols.
  • Proactive Dark Web Analysis: Implementing dark web analysis is crucial for proactive threat identification and mitigation. This includes monitoring for stolen credentials, assessing third-party vendor risks, and gathering comprehensive threat intelligence to stay ahead of potential cyber threats.
Joe Aucott