Fighting cybercriminals on dark web

by DATUK SERI AKHBAR SATAR / Pic by Bloomberg

THE problem of data theft, which has emerged as one of the major cybercrimes worldwide, has attracted little attention of lawmakers in Malaysia. 

Hackers are criminals who gain unauthorised access to a network and devices to steal sensitive data — such as individual personal particulars, financial information or company secrets — (which) are then sold on the dark web. 

Monetary gain is the main reason for thieves to steal data. The leak of data can be from hackers, IT vendors, as well as internal employees. The 2018 Ponemon statistics showed that at least 56% of organisations have experienced a data breach due to a vendor’s security shortcomings.

An alleged data leak containing the information of 22.5 million Malaysians born between 1940 and 2004, purportedly stolen from the National Registration Department (NRD), has once again put the country’s data security measures in the spotlight and having a negative effect.

It is shocking to know when a local tech portal Amanz reported that the database, 160GB in size, is being sold for US$10,000 (RM42,305) on the dark web.

In the screenshot shared by the portal, the seller claimed that this is an expanded database compared to the one he sold in September last year, which was only up to 1998. Home Minister Datuk Hamzah Zainuddin denied the alleged data leaked from NRD and said that the NRD firewall is quite strong.

It is important for the relevant law enforcement agencies to thoroughly investigate and confirm these allegations if the leak is genuine. 

Never underestimate the stupidity of these criminal’s hackers. The sensitive departments should work to continuously strengthen and refine the firewall, and keep all the software up to date and by following best practices for computer use.

Hackers are becoming more skilled and sophisticated, and some countries take a proactive initiative by hiring “ethical hackers” to deal with the cyberattacks and the dark web.

In 2021, a total of RM25.5 million worth of properties, luxury cars and watches including cash was seized by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission following the arrests of five suspects involving a syndicate which hacked into the Immigration Department’s computer systems to issue fake temporary work permits. The Immigration DG Datuk Khairul Dzaimee Daud said then investigations were ongoing as it is believed that the syndicate had help from within the department.

Prior to this incident, there were threats levelled at the Royal Malaysian Navy (TLDM), the US Air Force, as well the as Nigerian navy on highly classified documents which were leaked and ended up on the dark web. 

This has raised a heightened awareness of the need to be more secure, vigilant and resilient. TLDM was aware of the stolen military related information and they confirmed that it was already obsolete.

Whatever it is, the hackers and criminals had successfully broken our system by attacking both cyberspace and cybersecurity.

Prior to this, a cybercriminal claimed to have the complete set of records and personal details of 1,164,540 Universiti Teknologi Mara (UiTM) students and alumni who studied between 2000 and 2018. The hackers wanted to prove a point and to tell UiTM to beef up their IT security in the university. The information was eventually sold in the dark web.

In 2014, Richard Huckle — who posed as a freelance photographer and an English teacher in Kuala Lumpur  — was sentenced to life in prison for sexually abusing scores of children and sharing his activities on the dark web, where members exchanged child sex abuse images and tips.  

So, what is the “Dark Web”? There are three layers of Internet namely: Surface web, deep web and dark web.

Like an iceberg, interestingly, the surface web contains only 4% of the Internet; the remaining 96 % is hidden in the part of deep web.

However, this is not to say the deep web is necessarily malicious. Medical records, academic and legal documents are also kept and stored there for protection and privacy purposes.

What is disconcerting about the deep web is that a part of it called the dark web, which is also internationally hidden and not accessible through the traditional search engines or standard browsers. 

To access this level, one need to have a special browse known as Onion Router browser (TOR), originally developed by the US Navy to protect government intelligence communications. It protects users’ privacy and hides all users’ IP addresses, which makes it is impossible to be traced.

The dark web is used for nefarious purposes by hackers aiming to disrupt critical infrastructure or sensitive or classified information. It also serves as the “criminal underground” to facilitate money laundering and other criminal activities.

The organised criminal sites offer their largest marketplace on the dark web for purchasing illegal products and services such as sensitive data, financial transaction, corruption, drugs, contract killers, human organs, child sex, child pornography, counterfeit money, fake passports, firearms and stolen bank account information, etc. They even have their respective business models, advertising and collaboration among hackers and criminals, and exploiting organisations around the clock.

What would happen if a cyberattack takes over the electronic voting system or the government IT network? The government has need to be proactive and introduce a more serious and dedicated cybercrime unit to tackle hackers and the dark web.

Combating criminal activities operating in the dark web environment requires the law enforcement agencies to be more proactive. It demands cybersecurity experts and technical resources combined with an innovative approach. 

In Malaysia, there is a need to raise the knowledge, skills and capability across all members of the Royal Malaysia Police, Malaysian intelligence agencies and Cybersecurity Malaysia. The Malaysian Armed Forces have set up cyber warfare regiment to strengthen cyber defence. 

Law enforcement agencies, regulators and ethical hackers should form a task force with Cybersecurity Malaysia and acquire capabilities pertaining to deep web analysis. This is to enable the task force to effectively conduct investigations and continuous monitoring to effectively curb cybercrime activities to ensure a safer, secure cyberspace for the public and ensure it remains immune to cyberattacks. 

The ethical hackers can add immerse value to an organisation to identify their system and security weak points and upgrade an organisation’s network by defending it from threat in the cyberspace.

Even with the best infrastructure, technologies and legislation in place, the human factor that is subjective plays an important part to prevent data breaches. Therefore, the integrity of the data handlers is critical to combat cyberthreats. 

In the cybersecurity world, tracking and attacking cybercriminals are not easy tasks and is a big challenge as we are dealing with skilled and expert criminals. Besides combating cybercrime, other actions such as prevention, awareness campaign and risk mitigation are equally very vital aspects in fighting cybercriminals on the dark web.

Datuk Seri Akhbar Satar is the president of the Malaysian Association of Certified Fraud Examiners. 

The views expressed are of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the stand of the newspaper’s owners and editorial board.