Category Archives: Cybercrime

Three Paper Thursday – Analysing social networks within underground forums

One would be hard pressed to find an aspect of life where networks are not present. Interconnections are at the core of complex systems – such as society, or the world economy – allowing us to study and understand their dynamics. Some of the most transformative technologies are based on networks, be they hypertext documents making up the World Wide Web, interconnected networking devices forming the Internet, or the various neural network architectures used in deep learning. Social networks that are formed based on our interactions play a central role in our every day lives; they determine how ideas and knowledge spread and they affect behaviour. This is also true for cybercriminal networks present on underground forums, and social network analysis provides valuable insights to how these communities operate either on the dark web or the surface web.

For today’s post in the series `Three Paper Thursday’, I’ve selected three papers that highlight the valuable information we can learn from studying underground forums if we model them as networks. Network topology and large scale structure provide insights to information flow and interaction patterns. These properties along with discovering central nodes and the roles they play in a given community are useful not only for understanding the dynamics of these networks but for various purposes, such as devising disruption strategies.

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Hiring for the Cambridge Cybercrime Centre

We have just advertised some short-term “post-doc” positions in the Cambridge Cybercrime Centre: https://www.cambridgecybercrime.uk.

We are specifically interested in extending our data collection to better record how cybercrime has changed in response the COVID-19 pandemic and we wish to mine our datasets in order to understand whether cybercrime has increased, decreased or displaced during 2020.

There are a lot of theories being proposed as to what may or may not have changed, often based on handfuls of anecdotes — we are looking for researchers who will help us provide data driven descriptions of what is (now) going on — which will feed into policy debates as to the future importance of cybercrime and how best to respond to it.

We are not necessarily looking for existing experience in researching cybercrime, although this would be a bonus. However, we are looking for strong programming skills — and experience with scripting languages and databases would be much preferred. Good knowledge of English and communication skills are important.

Since these posts are only guaranteed to be funded until the end of September, we will be shortlisting candidates for (online) interview as soon as possible (NOTE the application deadline is less than ONE WEEK AWAY) and will be giving preference to people who can take up a post without undue delay. The rapid timescale of the hiring process means that we will only be able to offer positions to candidates who already have permission to work in the UK (which, as a rough guide, means UK or EU citizens or those with existing appropriate visas).

We do not realistically expect to be permitted to return to our desks in the Computer Laboratory before the end of September, so it will be necessary for successful candidates to be able to successfully “work from home” … not necessarily within the UK.

Please follow this link to the advert to read the formal advertisement for the details about exactly who and what we’re looking for and how to apply.

Cybercrime is (often) boring

Much has been made in the cybersecurity literature of the transition of cybercrime to a service-based economy, with specialised services providing Denial of Service attacks, cash-out services, escrow, forum administration, botnet management, or ransomware configuration to less-skilled users. Despite this acknowledgement of the ‘industrialisation’ of much for the cybercrime economy, the picture of cybercrime painted by law enforcement and media reports is often one of ’sophisticated’ attacks, highly-skilled offenders, and massive payouts. In fact, as we argue in a recent paper accepted to the Workshop on the Economics of Information Security this year (and covered in KrebsOnSecurity last week), cybercrime-as-a-service relies on a great deal of tedious, low-income, and low-skilled manual administrative work.

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Three Paper Thursday: Vulnerabilities! We’ve got vulnerabilities here! … See? Nobody cares.

Jurassic Park is often (mistakenly) left out of the hacker movie canon. It clearly demonstrated the risk of an insider attack on control systems (Velociraptor rampage, amongst other tragedies…) nearly a decade ahead of the Maroochy sewage incident, it’s the first film I know of with a digital troll (“ah, ah, ah, you didn’t say the magic word!”), and Samuel L. Jackson correctly assesses the possible consequence of a hard reset (namely, everyone dying), resulting in his legendary “Hold on to your butts”. The quotable mayhem is seeded early in the film, when biotech spy Lewis Dodgson gives a sack of money to InGen’s Dennis Nedry to steal some dino DNA. Dodgson’s caricatured OPSEC (complete with trilby and dark glasses) is mocked by Nedry shouting, “Dodgson! Dodgson! We’ve got Dodgson here! See, nobody cares…” Three decades later, this quote still comes to mind* whenever conventional wisdom doesn’t seem to square with observed reality, and today we’re going to apply it to the oft-maligned world of Industrial Control System (ICS) security.

There is plenty of literature on ICS security pre-2010, but people really sat up and started paying attention when we learned about Stuxnet. Possibly the most upsetting thing about Stuxnet (for security-complacent control system designers like me) was the apparent ease with which the “air gap” was bridged over and over again. Any remaining faith in the air gap was killed by Éireann Leverett’s demonstration (thesis and S4 presentation) that thousands of industrial systems were directly connected to the Internet — no air gap jumping required. Since then, we’ve observed a steady growth in Internet-connected ICS devices, due both to improved search techniques and increasingly-connectable ICS devices. On any given day you can find about 100,000 unique devices speaking industrial protocols on Censys and Shodan. These protocols are largely unauthenticated and unencrypted, allowing an attacker that can speak the protocol to remotely read state, issue commands, and even modify programmable logic without using an actual exploit.

This sounds (and is) bad, and people have (correctly) highlighted its badness on many occasions. The attacks, however, appear to be missing: we are not aware of a single instance of industrial damage initiated via an Internet-connected ICS device. In this Three Paper Thursday we’ll look at papers showing how easy it is to find and contextualise Internet-connected ICS devices, some evidence for lack of malicious interest, and some leading indicators that this happy conclusion (for which we don’t really deserve any credit) may be changing.

*Perhaps because guys of a certain age still laugh and say “Dodson! We’ve got Dodson here!” when they learn my surname. I try to explain that it’s spelt differently, but…
Continue reading Three Paper Thursday: Vulnerabilities! We’ve got vulnerabilities here! … See? Nobody cares.

Three Paper Thursday: Will we ever get IoT security right?

Academia, governments and industry frequently talk about the importance of IoT security. Fundamentally, the IoT environment has similar problems to other technology platforms such as Android: a fragmented market with no clear responsibilities or incentives for vendors to provide regular updates, and consumers for whom its not clear how much (of a premium) they are willing to pay for (“better”) security and privacy.

Just two weeks ago, Belkin announced to shut down one of its cloud services, effectively transforming its several product lines of web cameras into useless bricks. Unlike other end-of-support announcements for IoT devices that (only) mean devices will never see an update again, many Belkin cameras simply refuse to work without the “cloud”. This is particularly disconcerting  as many see cloud-based IoT as one possible solution to improve device security by easing the user maintenance effort through remote update capabilities.

In this post, I would like to introduce three papers, each talking about different aspects of IoT security: 1) consumer purchasing behaviour, 2) vendor response, and 3) an assessment of the ever-growing literature on “best-practices” from industrial, governmental, and academic sources.
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Three Paper Thursday: Exploring the Impact of Online Crime Victimization

Just as in other types of victimization, victims of cybercrime can experience serious consequences, emotional or not. First of all, a repeat victim of a cyber-attack might face serious financial or emotional hardship. These victims are also more likely to require medical attention as a consequence of online fraud victimization. This means repeat victims have a unique set of support needs, including the need for counselling, and seeking support from the criminal justice system. There are also cases, such as in cyberbullying or sextortion, where victims will not speak to their family and friends. These victims feel too ashamed to share details with others and they will probably not receive any support. In such cases trauma can even lead to self-harm. Therefore, we see that online victimization can actually lead to physical harm. 

As a member of the National Risk Assessment (NRA) Behavioural Science Expert Group in the UK, working on the social and psychological impact of cyber-attacks on members of the public, I have identified for years now that the actual social or psychological impact of different types of cyber-attacks to victims or society as a whole is still not explored. Governments have been slow in identifying and analysing potential events online that may negatively impact individuals. In the UK, as well as in other countries, cybercrime has been added as part of a national risk assessment exercise only a few years ago. Therefore, our knowledge about the potential impact of cyber-attacks and their cascading effects are still being under research.  

This is often a very difficult area for lawyers and the courts to understand. Understanding victims’ needs and the responsibilities of the police, the judiciary and other authorities in dealing with such crimes is very important. This is why we need to further explore how and to what extent the situation and needs of victims of online crimes differ from those of traditional offline crimes. By sharing experiences and openly discussing about this issue, we will be able to engrain the cybersecurity mindset in our societies thus preventing victimization in some level. 

In this post I would like to introduce recent work in this area. The first one explores the social and psychological impact of cyber-attacks to individuals as well as nations, the second one explores the differences between the situation and needs of online and offline crime victims while the third one discusses the relationship between offending and victimization online.

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Identifying Unintended Harms of Cybersecurity Countermeasures

In this paper (winner of the eCrime 2019 Best Paper award), we consider the types of things that can go wrong when you intend to make things better and more secure. Consider this scenario. You are browsing through Internet and see a news headline on one of the presidential candidates. You are unsure if the headline is true. What you can do is to navigate to a fact-checking website and type in the headline of interest. Some platforms also have fact-checking bots that would update periodically on false information. You do some research through three fact-checking websites and the results consistently show that the news contains false information. You share the results as a comment on the news article. Within two hours, you receive hundreds of notifications with comments countering your resources with other fact-checking websites. 

Such a scenario is increasingly common as we rely on the Internet and social media platforms for information and news. Although they are meant to increase security, these cybersecurity countermeasures can result in confusion and frustration among users due to the incorporation of additional actions as part of users’ daily online routines. As seen, fact-checking can easily be used as a mechanism for attacks and demonstration of in-group/out-group distinction which can contribute further to group polarisation and fragmentation. We identify these negative effects as unintended consequences and define it as shifts in expected burden and/or effort to a group. 

To understand unintended harms, we begin with five scenarios of cyber aggression and deception. We identify common countermeasures for each scenario, and brainstorm potential unintended harms with each countermeasure. The unintended harms are inductively organized into seven categories: 1) displacement, 2) insecure norms, 3) additional costs, 4) misuse, 5) misclassification, 6) amplification and 7) disruption. Applying this framework to the above scenario, insecure norms, miuse, and amplification are both unintended consequences of fact-checking. Fact-checking can foster a sense of complacency where checked news are automatically seen as true. In addition, fact-checking can be used as tools for attacking groups of different political views. Such misuse facilitates amplification as fact-checking is being used to strengthen in-group status and therefore further exacerbate the issue of group polarisation and fragmentation. 

To allow for a systematic application to existing or new cybersecurity measures by practitioners and stakeholders, we expand the categories into a functional framework by developing prompts for each harm category. During this process, we identify the underlying need to consider vulnerable groups. In other words, practitioners and stakeholders need to take into consideration the impacts of countermeasures on at-risk groups as well as the possible creation of new vulnerable groups as a result of deploying a countermeasure. Vulnerable groups refer to user groups who may suffer while others are unaffected or prosper from the countermeasure. One example is older adult users where their non-familiarity and less frequent interactions with technologies means that they are forgotten or hidden when assessing risks and/or countermeasures within a system. 

It is important to note the framework does not propose measurements for the severity or the likelihood of unintended harm occurring. Rather, the emphasis of the framework is in raising stakeholders’ and practitioners’ awareness of possible unintended consequences. We envision this framework as a common-ground tool for stakeholders, particularly for coordinating approaches in complex, multi-party services and/or technology ecosystems.  We would like to extend a special thank you to Schloss Dagstuhl and the organisers of Seminar #19302 (Cybersafety Threats – from Deception to Aggression). It brought all of the authors together and laid out the core ideas in this paper. A complimentary blog post by co-author Dr Simon Parkin can be found at UCL’s Benthams Gaze blog. The accepted manuscript for this paper is available here.

From Playing Games to Committing Crimes: A Multi-Technique Approach to Predicting Key Actors on an Online Gaming Forum

I recently travelled to Pittsburgh, USA, to present the paper “From Playing Games to Committing Crimes: A Multi-Technique Approach to Predicting Key Actors on an Online Gaming Forum” at eCrime 2019, co-authored with Ben Collier and Alice Hutchings. The accepted version of the paper can be accessed here.

The structure and content of various underground forums have been studied in the literature, from threat detection to the classification of marketplace advertisements. These platforms can provide a mechanism for knowledge sharing and a marketplace between cybercriminals and other members.

However, gaming-related activity on underground hacking forums have been largely unexplored. Meanwhile, UK law enforcement believe there is a potential link between playing online games and committing cybercrime—a possible cybercrime pathway. A small-scale study by the NCA found that users looking for gaming cheats on these types of forums can lead to interactions with users involved in cybercrime, leading to a possible first offences, followed by escalating levels of offending. Also, there has been interest from UK law enforcement in exploring intervention activity which aim to deter gamers from becoming involved in cybercrime activity.

We begin to explore this by presenting a data processing pipeline framework, used to identify potential key actors on a gaming-specific forum, using predictive and clustering methods on an initial set of key actors. We adapt open-source tools created for use in analysis of an underground hacking forum and apply them to this forum. In addition, we add NLP features, machine learning models, and use group-based trajectory modelling.

From this, we can begin to characterise key actors, both by looking at the distributions of predictions, and from inspecting each of the models used. Social network analysis, built using author-replier relationships, shows key actors and predicted key actors are well connected, and group-based trajectory modelling highlights a much higher proportion of key actors are contained in both a high-frequency super-engager trajectory in the gaming category, and in a high-frequency super-engager posting activity in the general category.

This work provides an initial look into a perceived link between playing online games and committing cybercrime by analysing an underground forum focused on cheats for games.

Honware: A Virtual Honeypot Framework for Capturing CPE and IoT Zero Days

Existing defenses are slow to detect zero day exploits and capture attack traffic targeting inadequately secured Customer Premise Equipment (CPE) and Internet of Things (IoT) devices. This means that attackers have considerable periods of time to find and compromise vulnerable devices before the attack vectors are well understood and mitigation is in place.

About a month ago we presented honware at eCrime 2019, a new honeypot framework that enables the rapid construction of honeypots for a wide range of CPE and IoT devices. The framework automatically processes a standard firmware image (as is commonly provided for updates) and runs the system with a special pre-built Linux kernel without needing custom hardware. It then logs attacker traffic and records which of their actions led to a compromise.

We provide an extensive evaluation and show that our framework is scalable and significantly better than existing emulation strategies in emulating the devices’ firmware applications. We were able to successfully process close to 2000 firmware images across a dozen brands (TP-Link, Netgear, D-Link…) and run them as honeypots. Also, as we use the original firmware images, the honeypots are not susceptible to fingerprinting attacks based on protocol deviations or self-revealing properties.

By simplifying the process of deploying realistic honeypots at Internet scale, honware supports the detection of malware types that often go unnoticed by users and manufactures. We hope that honware will be used at Internet scale by manufacturers setting up honeypots for all of their products and firmware versions or by researchers looking for new types of malware.

The paper is available here.

APWG eCrime 2019

Last week the APWG Symposium on Electronic Crime Research was held at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. The Cambridge Cybercrime Centre was very well-represented at the symposium. Of the 12 accepted research papers, five were authored or co-authored by scholars from the Centre. The topics of the research papers addressed a wide range of cybercrime issues, ranging from honeypots to gaming as pathways to cybercrime. One of the papers with a Cambridge author, “Identifying Unintended Harms of Cybersecurity Countermeasures”, received the Best Paper award. The Honorable Mention award went to “Mapping the Underground: Supervised Discovery of Cybercrime Supply Chains”, which was a collaboration between NYU, ICSI and the Centre.

In this post, we will provide a brief description for each paper in this post. The final versions aren’t yet available, we will blog them in more detail as they appear.

Best Paper

Identifying Unintended Harms of Cybersecurity Countermeasures

Yi Ting Chua, Simon Parkin, Matthew Edwards, Daniela Oliveira, Stefan Schiffner, Gareth Tyson, and Alice Hutchings

In this paper, the authors consider that well-intentioned cybersecurity risk management activities can create not only unintended consequences, but also unintended harms to user behaviours, system users, or the infrastructure itself. Through reviewing countermeasures and associated unintended harms for five cyber deception and aggression scenarios (including tech-abuse, disinformation campaigns, and dating fraud), the authors identified categorizations of unintended harms. These categories were further developed into a framework of questions to prompt risk managers to consider harms in a structured manner, and introduce the discussion of vulnerable groups across all harms. The authors envision that this framework can act as a common-ground and a tool bringing together stakeholders towards a coordinated approach to cybersecurity risk management in a complex, multi-party service and/or technology ecosystem.

Honorable Mention

Mapping the Underground: Supervised Discovery of Cybercrime Supply Chains

Rasika Bhalerao, Maxwell Aliapoulios, Ilia Shumailov, Sadia Afroz, and Damon McCoy

Cybercrime forums enable modern criminal entrepreneurs to collaborate with other criminals into increasingly efficient and sophisticated criminal endeavors.
Understanding the connections between different products and services is currently very expensive and requires a lot of time-consuming manual effort. In this paper, we propose a language-agnostic method to automatically extract supply chains from cybercrime forum posts and replies. Our analysis of generated supply chains highlights unique differences in the lifecycle of products and services on offer in Russian and English cybercrime forums.

Honware: A Virtual Honeypot Framework for Capturing CPE and IoT Zero Day

Alexander Vetterl and Richard Clayton

We presented honware, a new honeypot framework which can rapidly emulate a wide range of CPE and IoT devices without any access to the manufacturers’ hardware.

The framework processes a standard firmware image and will help to detect real attacks and associated vulnerabilities that might otherwise be exploited for considerable periods of time without anyone noticing.

From Playing Games to Committing Crimes: A Multi-Technique Approach to Predicting Key Actors on an Online Gaming Forum

Jack Hughes , Ben Collier, and Alice Hutchings

This paper proposes a systematic framework for analysing forum datasets, which contain minimal structure and are non-trivial to analyse at scale. The paper takes a multi-technique approach drawing on a combination of features relating to content and metadata, to predict potential key actors. From these predictions and trained models, the paper begins to look at characteristics of the group of potential key actors, which may benefit more from targeted intervention activities.

Fighting the “Blackheart Airports”: Internal Policing in the Chinese Censorship Circumvention Ecosystem

Yi Ting Chua and Ben Collier

In this paper, the authors provide an overview of the self-policing mechanisms present in the ecosystem of services used in China to circumvent online censorship. We conducted an in-depth netnographic study of four Telegram channels which were used to co-ordinate various kinds of attacks on groups and individuals offering fake or scam services. More specifically, these actors utilized cybercrime tools such as denial of service attack and doxxing to punish scammers. The motivations behind this self-policing appear to be genuinely altruistic, with individuals largely concerned with maintaining a stable ecosystem of services to allow Chinese citizens to bypass the Great Firewall. Although this is an emerging phenomenon, it appears to be developing into an important and novel kind of trust mechanism within this market