Watch out for the Dark Web. It's a scary place, and it can get you in trouble.
But what is the Dark Web? What's on there, and who controls it?
There are three Internets, metaphorically speaking. The one we generally think about is the open Internet, sometimes called the Surface Web.
This is where you'll find all the usual websites that everyone uses: e-commerce sites such as eBay and Amazon, entertainment sites like Netflix and YouTube, search engines like Bing and Google, social media like Facebook and Twitter, news and information like NYTimes.com and Wikipedia.com and even SecurityNow.com.
The second is the closed Internet, sometimes called the Deep Web.
That's filled with private and secure information -- such as the information from your bank with your balances, your doctor with your lab results, your data backups, your company's IaaS/PaaS services in the cloud, email servers, databases, ERP and CRM systems and other infrastructure. The closed Internet is huge, but we can only access the parts that we're authorized to see, often using complex Uniform Resource Identifiers (URIs) or even numerical IP addresses.
The third Internet is the Dark Web, which is often referred to as a secret part of the Deep Web.
The Dark Web consists of services and servers operated by criminal networks, individual hackers and other bad actors. Like the rest of the closed Internet, the contents of the Dark Web isn't indexed by Google or Bing. You won't find the Dark Web using your normal web browser. But it's there, and fast-growing: it doubled in size in February alone, at least in the number of secret sites discovered by researchers.
By some estimates, including a report by Carbon Black, the Dark Web economy is growing at an incredible rate of 2,500% each year.
You may not know about the Dark Web, but the people who operate sites on it know about you -- and may know more about you, and your business, than you realize or are comfortable with. (See 'RDP Shops' Proliferate Throughout the Dark Web.)
When you hear that millions of customer records with personal information have been stolen, or that someone skimmed credit card numbers from a fuel station, odds are that the thief didn't steal that information in order to use it.
The best analogy is a crook who breaks into a house and steals the TV set and a string of pearls: the crook wants to sell those goods, turning them into cash.
The place to sell those goods is on the Dark Web; the way to get paid is via untraceable cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin, Litecoin, Ethereum or Monero. There are cloud-based services on the Dark Web that help authenticate stolen information and facilitate the payments.
How do the sellers work?
They set up accounts on what are essentially alternative message boards, like you'd find on eBay or Craigslist, but hidden and with a high degree of anonymity. They offer up some samples for buyers to check out, to demonstrate that the stolen pearls are, indeed, real pearls. And they use anonymous file-transfer services to make the transaction.
Who are the buyers?
Anyone who has the technical resources to piece together personal information from many sources to enable identity theft, or can use stolen payment cards to effect financial transfers.
Some of the information stolen is intellectual property, ranging from early cuts of movies to software code to plans for military bases. Some of the information are business records that could be used for insider trading or for trying to trick businesses into doing wire transfers. Some of the data are usernames and passwords; the info buyer might get lucky, and find out that someone’s e-commerce password, stolen from an unsophisticated small business, also unlocks their banking information or email account. A huge amount of the data is involved in trading illegal drugs, guns, explosives and hacking tools.
So much data has been stolen and collected about organizations and consumers -- some from government agencies -- that there's definitely information about you, your family and your business.
Frankly, there's nothing you can do about it.
Sure, you can look to see what they have. Experian, for example, has what they call a Dark Web Triple Scan. There are other sites that do similar searches; I'm not sure they do more than skim the surface.
How do you access the Dark Web?
The first step is to download and install an open-source anonymizing browser called Tor. With Tor, you can access Dark Web resources, like the Grams search engine, the Torch search engine or the Onion URL repository.
Want my advice? Don't do it. The hackers that populate the Dark Web are smart. If you visit their sites, they may be able to install malware onto your computer; you certainly can't trust any downloads.
Be doubly careful if using any work-related computers for exploring the Dark Web, as this could compromise a business network. Be sure to talk to your IT department to make sure it's okay and that they are prepared. But even there... let me repeat, don't do it. Leave the Dark Web to the bad actors, and to the good actors in the cybersecurity industry and law enforcement.
Trust me. Don't go there.
— Alan Zeichick is principal analyst at Camden Associates, a technology consultancy in Phoenix, Arizona, specializing in enterprise networking, cybersecurity and software development. Follow him @zeichick.