But cybercrime gangs worldwide are increasingly using encrypted peer-to-peer chat platforms for their communications outside online underground forums, new study finds.
When cybercriminals take their conversations outside their underground forums, their favorite mode of communication is Skype, according to a study of global cybercriminal operations.
Skype, which does not encrypt messaging end-to-end like some of the newer-generation messaging apps such as WhatsApp, Jabber, Telegram, and Signal, ranks at the top-most identified messaging platforms, according to FlashPoint, which studied the number of times cybercriminals in the Deep and Dark Web mentioned the use of messaging services over a four-year period. While they couldn’t confirm why Skype got the most love, the researchers theorize that it’s because the well-known messaging application now bundled with most Microsoft software is the most readily available and convenient way to communicate.
Leroy Terrelonge, Flashpoint’s director of Middle East and Africa Research and director of Americas Research, says he and his team wanted to see where cybercriminals go to communicate and drill down on their deals and hacking operations after first meeting in their online forums. “Yes, they are meeting in [online underground forums]: that serves as a vital way to bring people together. But the really meaty conversation where they go to [discuss] targeting is not happening in forums, but in different messaging applications,” he says.
Cybercriminals around the world also tend to follow and emulate what Russian-speaking cybercrime groups do. Russian-speaking cybercrime is considered the most sophisticated, and Flashpoint noted that there’s a large adoption of the nonencrypted ICQ messaging platform around the world. ICQ traditionally has been heavily used by Russian cybercriminals, although Skype has bumped it from the number one slot in those groups.
“Russian-speaking actors … sit at the top of the food chain,” and cybercriminals in other regions look to them for the latest communications tools, as well as to communicate and collaborate with them, Terrelonge says.
Flashpoint investigated four years of data it had collected via its Deep Web and Dark Web monitoring, and found that Skype in 2016 landed in the top five-most mentioned messaging platforms in communities that speak Russian (#1) English (#1), Spanish (#2), Arabic (#2), French (#2), Chinese (#3), and Persian/Farsi (#3). Skype overall was used much less within Chinese-, French-, and Persian-speaking cybercrime communities, however.
“Skype, which is not considered to be a very secure messaging platform is still used across many different language communities as one of the top five messaging apps,” Terrelonge says.
Most of the regions are trending toward adopting end-to-end encrypted messaging as well. The shift began sometime after Edward Snowden’s leak of documents from the National Security Agency (NSA) that illustrated the agency’s surveillance capabilities: “In general, across all [groups], there was a move from 2012 to 2016 away from less secure to more secure messaging,” Terrelonge says.
The new generation of encrypted messaging apps is much easier to use, he says, than the old days of non-user friendly interfaces that were “clunky.”
Among the Russian-speaking groups, the top five mentioned messaging apps in 2016 were Skype (38.72%); Jabber (24.77%); ICQ (21.05%); Telegram (7.26%); and Viber (4.47%). Jabber (45.84%) topped the French-speaking list, while WhatsApp (27%) and Skype (25%) topped the Arabic-speaking one; Telegram (88.5%), the Persian-speaking one; and Jabber inched up to number two behind Skype in the English-speaking cybercrime community, with 11.75%, followed by ICQ (9.81%), and Kik Messenger (5.63%). Chinese-speaking groups mosty use the less-secure QQ (63.33%), followed by WeChat (35.58%); Skype (0.44%); WhatsApp (0.22%); and Jabber (0.31%), according to the Flashpoint report.