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OPSEC in the Underground: A Look at Insider Trading

Like any business, cybercriminals offering their services need to develop and maintain a brand and reputation in order to attract customers. However, unlike a legitimate business, a cybercriminal enterprise must operate clandestinely and maintain their operational security (OPSEC) in order to mitigate risks that could lead to attracting the attention of law enforcement. It’s a fine balance.

A recent look at insider trading on the dark web shows how underground operators use OPSEC to protect their businesses.

KickAss and The Stock Insider are two dark web forums which claim to either specialize in insider trading or host sub-forums with this specialty.

KickAss is a closed forum which claims to host a sub-forum focusing on the trade of insider information. The wider activity on the forum relates to a range of criminal activities including malware development, the trade of compromise data, the trade of exploits and more.

By way of marketing itself, when initially set up, the forum claimed that the admin team had seven members – one economist, one investor, three hackers and two trading analysts. The economist and the investor identify companies whose stock they think is likely to move, the hackers target the company to try and obtain sensitive info which might provide a trading advantage, and the trading analysts vet the information. In addition, a large number of posts advertising KickAss have appeared on a range of forums by users claiming to be KickAss members.

Cybercriminals HideHowever, to protect itself from law enforcement and others who may compromise the forum, KickAss has several measures in place. First, the forum requires new users to submit applications which include their skills, areas of expertise and areas of interest. The forum also claims that new users will be interviewed by an administrator or trusted user before being accepted and must be vouched for by three different entities before being admitted to the forum. To further vet customers, membership of the forum requires a monthly fee of 0.25 BTC (approximately $300 USD).

The Stock Insider is another limited access dark web forum. This forum takes a more ‘exclusive’ position with access limited to a closed, trusted group. To gain access, users must register and then share a valid insider trading tip with other users. The site owners claim to be traders themselves which allows them to easily vet the tip. This site is significantly less discussed than the KickAss forum on other criminal sites and appears to have done far less advertising. The elite nature limits the site’s member base but also serves as a way of protecting operations.

Both of these insider trading forums show how a cybercriminal’s approach to people, process and technology strengthen their OPSEC.

People – The most challenging element of OPSEC is the human. That’s why cybercriminals are diligent in vetting customers. A rigorous approach to admission reduces the likelihood of allowing in a member who may compromise the forum either purposefully or through careless mistakes.

Process – Just as defenders have processes to effectively defend their networks, adversaries also have mature processes to reduce the likelihood of being disrupted. These include using aliases and unique personas, identifying the right skill sets for employees, and formal hiring practices to ensure the legitimacy of applicants.

Technology – A deep understanding of technology is necessary to become a sophisticated and trusted operation. It is important to note that these tools can also be used for legitimate reasons like whistleblowing, journalism, or avoiding government surveillance. Examples include: secure operating systems such as WHONIX and TAILS, anonymization networks like TOR, email encryption using PGP, and digital currencies like Bitcoin and WebMoney. Adversaries also innovate as needed. For example, to overcome the fact that Bitcoin allows tracking of transactions, cybercriminals have turned to Bitcoin tumblers which, in effect, launder Bitcoins.

In the past I’ve written about how defenders use OPSEC to gain business resiliency. Clearly, cyber criminals are following suit as they balance staying off the radar of law enforcement with the ability to sell and market their services. As the discussion of insider trading on the dark web ecosystem continues, it’s safe to assume that law enforcement and researchers will continue to monitor such operations – looking for lapses in OPSEC that can indicate illegal activity and accelerate investigations.

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Alastair Paterson is CEO and Co-Founder of Digital Shadows. Alastair has worked for over a decade advising secure government and FTSE 100 clients on large-scale data analytics for risk and intelligence. Before founding Digital Shadows in 2011, Alastair was International Propositions Manager at BAE Systems Detica working with clients in the Gulf, Europe and Australasia. He holds a first class MEng in Computer Science from the University of Bristol.