[Webinar Transcription] Why Darknet Data is an Integral Part of OSINT Investigations

March 05, 2024

Or, watch on YouTube

The internet is a vast realm that extends far beyond the surface web we commonly explore. Beneath the surface lies the darknet, a hidden network that poses significant challenges but also holds immense potential for open-source intelligence (OSINT) investigations. Join DarkOwl’s Director of Intelligence to learn how the darknet expands the scope of information available to researchers and analysts.

In this 30-minute session, Erin covers how darknet data:

  • Enhances OSINT investigations by unveiling hidden information
  • Strengthens our ability to combat cybercrime and protect individuals and organizations
  • Enhances threat intelligence and helps maintain a safer digital ecosystem
  • Is utilized in identity theft, fraud, compromised accounts and other real world examples

For those that would rather read the presentation, we have transcribed it below.

NOTE: Some content has been edited for length and clarity.

Erin: Good morning or good afternoon, everyone. I’m going to do a quick high-level talk today of what darknet data is, why it’s important and how it can fit into your investigations. Please do ask any questions that you have throughout, and I’d be more than happy to answer those. So, what we’re going to cover today is what is the dark web? A really quick intro, what is OSINT? Again, very high level. Why is dark web important? And then what I really want to focus in on are some use cases and hopefully show you how we can integrate dark web and OSINT together to find some really interesting things in our investigations.

The obligatory who am I side… as any good analyst, I hate having any details about me on the internet, so I’m going to keep it brief, but my name is Erin. I’m the Director of Collections and Intelligence here at DarkOwl, and I’ve been an intelligence analyst for over 12 years now.

Another obligatory slide is the iceberg, you can’t really have an OSINT presentation without including an iceberg of some kind in here. This is to highlight the different areas of the internet. They’re all open-source, so they all form part of open-source investigations but obviously at DarkOwl, and me personally at the moment, focus on the darknet, but it’s always important to see the whole view and look at everything that’s going on. You want to be able to look at sources that are on the deep net and the surface net as well to make sure you’re getting as much information as possible and that you’re able to validate that information as well.

Diving into the dark web, hopefully most of you that are listening are familiar, but I’ll just give a very quick background of what the dark web is and what can be found there.  I’m not going to read everything on this slide, but you can see that it’s been around since the 2000, so we’ve got about 20 years now and there’s a lot of things that have happened in terms of the access, the marketplaces that are emerging and forums, breaches starting to occur, terrorists using the information, etc. There’s been a lot of uses of the dark web, and I would like to say that it isn’t just there for illicit uses. There are a lot of legitimate uses for the dark web. I think one of the best things is allowing some individuals that might not have open access to the internet in the countries that they live in are able to access a lot of websites, social media sites, etc. using the dark web that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to access. There are legitimate purposes, but obviously a lot of nefarious actors also use it and take advantage of the anonymity that they believe exists there.

Marketplaces, people selling goods. These are usually illicit goods, usually, hacking tools, malware, data, drugs, weapons, counterfeit goods. We see all of those being sold on a regular basis. We also see forums – people chatting and talking to each other but also usually selling some kind of information or sharing information, some of it’s not all for sale. We do also see a lot of extremists, forums, people talking about, information that’s not great, but also getting together, planning events, things like that. As I just mentioned, there are also social media sites on there. There are mirrors of Twitter or X or Facebook, Reddit.  All that can be accessed from the dark web. There are cryptocurrency exchanges, mixers, other forms of things. Cryptocurrency is the currency of the dark web. Really, that’s the main way that people transact. The full ecosystem for cryptocurrency also exists on the dark web. You also get news media, news sources. A lot of the main media outlets and newspapers will also have dark web mirrors. The CIA has a dark web mirror. There are a lot of legitimate sites out there. And then of course, everyone is aware of data leaks, that is the main place that they are shared and ransomware. A lot of ransomware groups will have leak sites where they will have a shame board of all their victims, which they will put on the dark web for people to go and view. If the company doesn’t pay their ransom, then that information will be released there and can be downloaded. I should say with the leaks as well, it’s usually advertised on the dark web, but the dark web is very slow in terms of downloading information. Often a downloading service or a torrent will be used if the files are quite large.

This is just to give you kind of an idea of what the dark web looks like. These are some sites selling counterfeit goods, organs, drugs, cash apps and accounts. Then also we’ve got some of the advertisements that are shown here. 

You can see the different marketplaces that exist with the different areas, we’ve got people selling Social Security numbers, malware, botnets, different types of drugs. There really is this booming commercial aspect to the dark web and a lot of different stores that have been set up either for niche things or sell a huge amount of goods. And as I said, cryptocurrency is the currency of choice. You can see in that middle image: Monero, Bitcoin, Dogecoin, Litecoin are just some of the ones that are accepted. But it is a variety of cryptocurrencies that are usually accepted these days.

There are quite a lot of challenges, though, with collecting from the dark web. I mean, the first one is you’ve got to know where to look. You don’t have the nice URLs that you would get on the surface web. You also don’t have Google to help you. There are search engines on the dark web, but the majority of sites are not indexed and therefore not easy to find. You need to know where to look, and need to be into networks where that information is being shared. You also, in most cases, need a login to access the pages. So, you need to create personas and you need to do that in a secure way. The threat actors that set up these sites and maintain these sites are very against bots. They’re very against DDoS, all of the things that they’re very familiar with but also, they don’t want people going in and crawling the data. They don’t want people to access it that aren’t there for the purposes that they’ve set it up for. I would say the dark web has some of the most sophisticated captures I have ever seen. I can spend quite a bit of my day just trying to solve math issues or see letters in squiggly lines or putting images together. It is quite difficult to get into those. There is a lot of bot traps on the dark web and a lot of human interaction that is required to get into it. It’s not easy but there is a huge amount of data and intelligence to be found once you do get into those sites.

I also just wanted to touch on before I get into some of what that data is what we call at DarkOwl dark web adjacent sites. These are things that are not necessarily on the dark web. They’re not on Tor or I2P or ZeroNet, or some of the other dark web services that are out there but they are used by the same types of people. They are used in the same kind of way. Telegram is a huge one where we do see a huge amount of marketplaces. We see a lot of fraud being conducted. We see a lot of hacking operations. There’s a lot of hacktivist channels, extremist channels, etc. That’s something that you need to be aware of as well when you’re doing these dark web and OSINT investigations. I’ve also mentioned ICQ and Jabber. But there are other things like Rocket, Tocket.io, Tox and things like that where people are communicating. We also see it on gaming apps. Discord got a lot of publicity last year with the leaks from the Pentagon leak. I believe he was just sentenced, actually, this week. In terms of leaking that information on there, but generally, a lot of threat actors are on Discord actively. It is a gaming site, but you can set up different servers and different channels. And so, we see a lot of people sharing and operating there as well. Then a lot of threat actors these days aren’t as worried about anonymity as they perhaps used to be. There’s been a lot of instances where dark web forums and marketplaces have been taken down by law enforcement action. So, some threat actors, I think, think, why should I go to all of this effort of having a Tor node and a Tor site and setting this up when I could just do it on the surface web with the same risks, almost. There are marketplaces that are vendor shops that are forums that sit on the surface web that’s still used by the same kind of actors for the same kind of use cases. We’re very much monitoring and looking at those as well.

To give you an idea of some of the things that we’re able to find from the darknet. A lot of data comes from the darknet, so we see things, huge amounts of personal data, PII. That is the currency of the dark web at the moment. I would say we see a huge amount of issues being stolen, email addresses, passwords, Social Security numbers, social media accounts, stealer logs becoming really prevalent in the last year or two. There’s cookies in there. There’s two factor authentication sign-ins. There’s key questions, etc. So, there’s a huge amount there. We also see a lot of banking information and fraud. There’s a lot of corporate data, especially with ransomware attacks which are only increasing. I’ve mentioned malware and then also risks. There’s a lot of threat actors on the dark web that are very good at what they do. There’s a lot of cyberattacks. There’s a lot of education, actually, on the dark web about how you can conduct those cyberattacks, leaks, etc. There’s a huge amount of information out there if you know where to look.

Will you be discussing during this webinar the uptick in Drainer as a service (DaaS) or explaining it to those new to dark web marketplaces?

No, that is not in the presentation, but I can definitely get to that at the end.

OSINT is open-source intelligence. It’s information that’s been found from open-sources. Any information found on the dark web does count as OSINT information but obviously it’s a lot broader than that. These are just some of the sources and information that’s out there that you can use as part of OSINT to find information for whatever kind of investigation you’re trying to conduct.

I did want to highlight some tips in terms of doing OSINT. This is true of looking on social media or looking on the dark web. I created my little AI generated sock puppet. That’s what that’s supposed to be if no one can tell but always use the sock puppet. Always have a persona, always ensure that you’re doing this in a secure way – using VPN or proxies. Use a virtual machine, use burner phones. Don’t use any of your own equipment to do any of these investigations. You should never cross over your real-life persona with what you’re doing online ensuring that you’re recording all of the information you find. I mean, it really depends on if you’re doing this for law enforcement or internally. But I would say most people you need to record what you’re finding with the dates, the timestamp so you are able to validate the data is accurate as of the time that you found it. Because obviously all of these things can change, and particularly with the dark web sites go up and down all of the time. What you find today might not be there tomorrow. It might not be there an hour from now. There are a lot of open-source tools out there that can help you with doing that kind of collection. So I would recommend looking into those and if anyone has any questions, I’m more than happy to share some of the, the tools that I’m aware of that can help you with that collection. There’s lots of other OSINT tips and tricks out there. There’s a huge amount of resources, online and for anyone who’s new to the area, I would recommend having a look at those.

Basically, there’s a lot of illicit information and activity that’s happening on the dark web, so it can be a really good starting point for investigations in terms of finding out what’s going on. You can see what people are discussing, you can see trends, you can see victims, you can see how things are operating. Then moving into more surface web OSINT investigations, you can sometimes expand on that and build out a really big picture. I would say they’re very complementary of each other and especially if you’re looking at fraud or extremism or drugs or weapons trafficking or human trafficking, the dark web is going to be a really valuable source for you to find information and data points to help you in your investigation.


Now I’m hopefully going to go on to some of the interesting bits and walk you through a couple of recent case studies that we have. I’m going to start with Lockbit. Obviously, this has been in the news a lot recently. Kathy is going to share in the chat a blog that we recently did on Lockbit. I think it’s been about two weeks now, Lockbit leak site was taken down by law enforcement. Really interestingly, I thought, rather than just seizing the site as they usually do, they actually had fun with it and started posting on the leak site things about the Lockbit group themselves. One of the things that they did share was that there were two Lockbit affiliates that they had sanctioned and put indictments against. This is after the fact, but I wanted to highlight how you can get really good information from government sources and official sources about threat actors, and then use that and pivot into other data.

So here we have this individual, Ivan, I’m not going to attempt to say, but Vassalord. We’ve got all his usernames and things that he’s using here, and we can pivot in our own data. We were able to identify that he was active on a number of dark web Russian speaking forums. Here we can see him, this is in Russian, I haven’t translated it, but he is selling malware. He is giving people advice on different malware and also selling it within the group. So, through looking at this you know obviously it’s after the fact, but we can see what his activity was. We can see this dates back to 2022, but we can also see who he was interacting with. We can see kind of what tools he was operating, and we can see more information about him. You can also then take that information and put it into social media tools. This is What’s My Name app, where you can put in usernames, and it will search across social media sites and identify if an account exists. So here we can see that there’s some old Twitter accounts. There’s a telegram account which I already mentioned. The threat actors are very active on. We’ve got a Roblox account. You know, threat actors love gaming.  It’s giving you these other areas to go and look and to go and research and investigate and can give you more information to build that picture about that individual.

One thing I was just going to highlight, just because I thought it was kind of funny, was that Lockbit actually put something out a few months ago, I believe it’s a few months ago. It might have been a bit longer, saying they would pay anyone who got Lockbit tattooed on them, and several people did it. And they shared that online, and we were able to see those tattoos, which they probably regret quite a lot now.

There was a second Lockbit affiliate, also that I wanted to highlight. This is just highlighting the usefulness of leaked data. We collect data breaches and leaked information and have that within our system. Here you can see there’s two separate leaks. One includes an email address with the full name of the individual. If you only knew this email address was linked to someone who was doing bad things, you could put that into a leak and see if you can get more information about them. And here we’ve got their full name in Cyrillic, which I’ve translated, and also their telephone number. And then pivoting on that telephone number, we’re able to see another leak, which I believe is linked to Yandex app for ordering food. So, you can see kind of the payments information. You can see his name again in Cyrillic as Arthur, you’ve got the phone number there. But also interestingly, you’ve got the iOS version.

So, there’s a lot of information that you can find within these leaks with information about threat actors. And then what I’ve shown below is again, using open-source tools, these are two freely available Python tools that you can use, where you can search on the email address or on the phone number, and it will go and look across social media sites to see if they appear there. And it won’t share that information with the email or the phone number holder. So, you still have OpSec, but here you can see that email address. It has a LastPass account, it has a Nike account, it has a Twitter account so you can start to see where this individual is operating.

Cryptocurrency and Extremism

Another use case I just wanted to highlight. I mentioned cryptocurrencies are used extensively on the dark web. I also wanted to highlight some of the extremist activity that we see. I’m not going to highlight any particular threads on this page because I personally don’t find them to be, I don’t agree with their point of view, but Kiwi Farms is an open forum where people share information about different things. It’s similar to a chan. It does have, some not so nice threads on it but just highlighting that with our Vision platform you’re able to find that information and then also view it through our direct to darknet feature as it would look on the site, and you can see this is their homepage. But one of the things that Kiwi Farms do is they have a donation address, so the people that maintain the account are asking individuals to provide them money to keep the site going. So I wanted to see if I could find out anything about that cryptocurrency address and how the funds are being used. I used an open-source blockchain explorer. This is called breadcrumbs; you can get a basic free account and it allows you to do some kind of network analysis. You can see we’ve got the Kiwi Farms bitcoin address right at the beginning with some of the people that are paying into that. But I was more interested in seeing where that money went and a lot of it was circling back. I have removed some of the nodes on this just to make it a little bit more visually easy to see but a lot of it was going back into Kiwi’s Farm, but then I was able to find areas where it was being cashed out; Kraken, Binance. And then Bravada, were some of the areas where we were seeing that the funds were actually being cashed out. And you can see that the site, breadcrumbs, does also give you an overview of the Bitcoin address and how much funds have gone in and out. You can see it’s quite a high volume and it’s been active for the last three years. You can also see that it plugs into bitcoin abuse. Bitcoin abuse, which I believe its name has changed now to Chain abuse, but it’s another really good source for looking at any cryptocurrency addresses you come across and seeing if they’ve previously been reported as linked to nefarious activity. One of the addresses in the Bravada exchange is actually been reported to be linked to terrorism and sponsoring groups in Russia. It’s interesting that an extremist forum, Kiwi Farms is utilizing and sending funds out that way. Obviously, I can’t say for definite that that’s what’s happening, but we can see that those funds are being trickled out that area and it’s another area for us to investigate and look into.

Israel-Hamas Conflict

The Israel-Hamas conflict has obviously been ongoing for a while now and it’s been all over telegram. So, as I mentioned, telegram is a really useful place to see a lot of hacktivism, a lot of threat groups. There’s also marketing there, but it’s also being used more and more as a new source and whether that news is factually accurate or is disinformation is always up for debate, but it’s been a really good source of being able to see what is happening on both sides of the conflict. Actually, on October 7th, it was one of the first places that anyone saw that something was happening. You can see one of the images here is them going through the wall into Israel.

This was on telegram almost immediately and anecdotally; I know that people in Israel were watching telegram for news updates because they were coming through quicker than they were on traditional media sources. But as I said, there’s also been a lot of information that’s been shared there that is probably not accurate. There were definitely videos that were being posted at the beginning of the conflict that actually came from video games and things like that but there’s also been a lot of the hacktivist groups on both sides, saying who they’re going to target or saying that they have successfully targeted someone showing evidence of DDoS attacks, showing evidence of defacement attacks, showing documents that have been stolen and leaks. A huge amount of leaks are being shared on telegram but one of the things I wanted to highlight, and I don’t necessarily have a good example here, but you definitely can do it, is taking some of these images and the videos that are being shared. Telegram, unlike Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat doesn’t always strip out the metadata on the images.  There are a lot of open-source tools that can kind of help you to see what the metadata is, and if there is any Exif data that’s going to help you there but also you can get hints of where things are occurring and what’s happening by looking at the images and matching them up with satellite imagery or previous images that have been shared as well.

Scattered Spider

I’m conscious I’m running out of time, so I’m going to go quickly. Scattered spider is another group, threat actor group that we’ve been monitoring. They are a financial crime group. Scattered spider is the name that’s been given to them by one of the cyber security threat actors, but they’ve been responsible for some very high-profile attacks in recent years, including taking down Vegas with the MGM and Caesars Palace ransomware attacks. They do a lot of social engineering and phishing techniques; we expect those to probably increase in sophistication. Not that they aren’t already, but we know that AI is being used to assist with those attacks but they are very active on telegram and discord and part of what is known within the community as the comm. We’re doing some analysis on who is active in those groups, who is interacting with each other, and what information can we find out about them. So, there’s a lot you can do with the data that’s in telegram to do analysis, to do that link analysis to, to find out who the individuals are and of course the main ones you can go and look in other sources to see if they have other social media profiles or other areas that you would want to be looking into.

So, I ran through that really, really quickly.  I’ll just leave the key takeaways up here for people to read.  Hopefully, that’s what you’ve taken away from it. I think the question about the Drainer service highlights that there’s a huge amount of things that you could cover here. This is very much designed to be an initial overview and an introduction but if there’s topics and interests that people would like to know more about, please put those into the chat and we can look at providing more information on that in the future. 

But with that being said I just wanted to highlight we do provide investigation services at DarkOwl for dark web and OSINT investigations so we can assist you with any investigations that you currently have. With that, I will open it up for questions.

What data sources are considered dark web?

Dark web traditionally is sites that are accessed through Tor, so the Onion router, but you also have things like I2P and ZeroNet, which are also dark web providers and there’s a few more out there, but they’re not as used as regularly, such as Magnesium. As I mentioned in the presentation, we also view things as dark web adjacent when it’s the same kind of use case and the same kind of individuals that are operating. So, we definitely consider that to be Telegram, to be Discord, ICQ and then some surface websites as well which are there. So, I think it’s open to interpretation. It depends how narrow you want to be but I think with OSINT Investigations you always need to be open to all of the information that’s out there and being able to validate it against different sources. So, the more data points that you have, the more likely that you’ll be able to do that.

How do you locate and identify new groups on Telegram or Onion sites?

Manually is the main way. So, telegram you can do searches in the global search or telegram on the desktop app. If you have a keyword or a search that you’re aware of, you can put that in and see what you would find. I would also look at the groups that you’re already tracking and monitoring and search for the links. If you click on the channel page, you can go to links and it will show you other telegram channels that have been shared. I will also sometimes look at other social media sources – people on Twitter or other forums will sometimes say, let’s take this conversation to telegram and they will share an invite link there. You can also use Google Dorking to search telegram, which is quite useful, but I would say it’s a keyword phrase. If you’ve got a particular topic you’re interested in, um, search for that. And then also if you’re looking at individuals in other countries, do you use the native language? So if you’re looking at Russian threat actors search for your turn and Cyrillic as well as in Roman characters because you’ll find more information that way. Onion sites, again, it’s similar. We are already monitoring the major forums and marketplaces, and they will share other areas that they’re accessing. There are sites out there that will track new onion sites that have been created and what they’re being used for. So we can look at those. It is kind of just kind of pulling through the different links that are being found and then reviewing them to make sure that they have actually got useful information on them.

Does DarkOwl have copies of entire sites that can be walked through. For example, could one walk through Silk Road and see the listings and users that were active back then?

Yes and no. We have our data, it goes back to 2016 in earnest. So, we do have all of that information, but we store it in documents and pages. You could search Silk Road and go through it. But one of the things that we don’t do is collect images due to legalities around CSAM material. You would be able to see the postings, you would be able to see the usernames and all of that information from any site that we’ve been collecting since 2016 but it wouldn’t be a walk through in terms of – it wouldn’t look like the site. You couldn’t click on buttons and things like that, but the data is all there.

Other than breadcrumbs and chainabuse, what are some other great sources for tracking crypto and blockchain across the deep and dark web?

I think there’s so many sources out there. Breadcrumbs is the one that I like to use just because it’s free. I mean obviously there’s paid services out there that are very, very good. I’m not aware of many others, especially not on the dark web. They’re not there for tracking purposes. I think one I heard of that I’m not familiar with but was recommended to me recently was Qlue – that is supposed to be quite good for cryptocurrency, monitoring but it really depends if you want to do a paid service or open-source.

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