Activity on the dark web grew by a whopping 44% in the spring of 2020, compared to numbers from January 2020, this is according to a study of the effects of COVID19 on dark web forums.
Cybersecurity company Sixgill came to this conclusion after analyzing five dark web forums, these dark web forums were chosen for their prominence, low barrier to entry and high volume of posts. The user count and activity of these darknet forums were investigated.
These dark web forums had a combined total of 268,610 unique monthly users at their 2020 peak. This represents a growth from 82,421 in January 2020. The monthly growth rate ranged from 1% to 9.2%.
This growth can definitely be explained by the increase in people idling at home with nothing better to do, However Sixgill security research lead Dov Lerner expressed surprise at the increase in activity. All of the forums grew and the growth of one forum did not hinder other forums, this is a sign that the darknet is growing.
“Everyone’s stuck at home; people are bored and looking for something to do … I would have guessed that the number of [Dark Web] actors would rise as well,” said Dov Lerner. “I did not expect it to rise 44%. That number really stood out as something very, very striking.”
Sixgill reports had already detected an uptick in specific types of activity on the Dark Web during the spring 2020 time-frame. There was an increase in narcotics, money laundering, gaming store accounts and compromised Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) accounts.
The Sixgill report identified the forums as Forums A, B, C, D and E. The Sixgill researchers did not directly name the forums in the research but they say these forums are “extremely popular” and specifically focused on dark web activity. Four of the forums analyzed were English speaking and the last one was Russian. Russian is a huge language on the Dark Web links, Dov Lerner hypothesizes that Russian-speaking forums have a smaller volume of posts, or Russian speaking participants are joining the large English speaking forums.
The forums analyzed were broad in nature and had a lot of narcotics and hacked products, these ranged from gaming cheats to cracked software. According to Dov Lerner, “They all deal in one way or another with the more heavy cybercrime,”. “In general, I think it’s interesting how many topics coexist on these forums. These are very broad.”
The forum activity was measured in terms of the number of posts by users. The researchers only counted users if they had created at least one post, this parameter was used because researchers were unable to determine the total number of registered users who did not make any posts. In the first six months of 2020, 85% of the participants who posted made ten or fewer posts, and only 2.1% wrote more than 51 posts, according to the researchers report. The majority of forum users rarely participated at all, with the top 20% of active users accounting for nearly 75% of all posts on these forums.
According to Lerner, there are many reasons why users might not post frequently on these dark web forums. Less experienced participants new there and coming to learn, so the users observe but they don’t contribute to the forums. Other users may have interested in dipping their toes into the underground but then lost interest after some time. While some users create burner accounts to maintain operational security.
All of the five dark web forums analyzed experienced exponential growth, the number of participants started low and suddenly increasing over time. Each of the forums had different periods during which their growth was accelerated, and this growth varied from one dark web forum to another. Larger overall participation lead to the 44% increase. Many of these forums are growing through word of mouth as their users share them with close friends; from there, they grow quickly.
The Sixgill researchers are working to determine how long these dark web forums last, and what drives the growth of these forums. This recent growth aside, a forum might become big if it is known for a good or service in high demand.
However if information appears on one forum it is usually shared on another dark web forum. All forums evaluated are still operating, but the oldest are beginning to stagnate.
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