Spying on the digital underground requires discreet and tech-savvy cops. Germany's Federal Criminal Police Office has presented a new study on cybercrime. The BKA does not intend to shut the darknet down.
Coming as it did after the announcement that the teenager who killed nine people in Munich on July 22 before turning his gun on himself had purchased the weapon on the darknet, media interest was huge when the German Federal Police Office (BKA) presented its 2015 cybercrime report last week. The illegal trading platform is a semihidden part of the internet where those in the known can use special search engines to move in total anonymity - well, almost total.
"The internet is not a space that is beyond criminal prosecution," BKA boss Holger Münch said several times on Wednesday in a briefing about the report's findings. It was in part a hopeful invocation.
About 140 BKA investigators are currently tasked with tracking cybercrime, and Münch told DW that the darknet was their main focus. At the moment, the BKA is conducting 85 criminal investigations into the sale of arms and explosives on the darknet, Münch said. He estimated that the number of weapons sold on the darknet still pales in comparison with commerce on the analog black market - but perhaps not for long. "Very dangerous weapons are being sold there," Münch said, adding that cybercrime is "still a growing phenomenon."
"Here and there it has even become an industry," Münch said.
'A growing phenomenon'
Though impressive, the BKA's statistics do not reflect the complexity of cybercrime. For 2015, the agency documented 45,000 cases of cybercrime that can be directly linked to Germany, for a total value of 40 million euros. Global cybercrime stastics are much higher. And then there are the victims who don't report offenses - and those who do not know that a cybercrime has occurred.
Münch cited a 2015 study by the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW). Using to a broad-based survey, DIW experts estimated that the financial damage from the four largest areas of internet crime - phishing, identity theft, fraudulent goods and services, and malware - totaled 3.4 billion euros.
The BKA boss said detectives were confronting the threat with a "combination of investigative approaches from the analog and digital worlds," with information technology experts and police detectives working side-by-side at the BKA. Undercover investigators are operating in the virtual world, and in the real world they are attempting to coerce people active in the scene to work as informants. Münch said the BKA had had a number of investigative successes, including closing down five illegal darknet trading platforms in Germany last year. Internationally, Münch said, the BKA was involved in closing down 30 further darknet marketplaces and had gathered evidence for cases against their operators, dealers and customers.
According to The Economist, the darknet's vendors overwhelmingly deal in drugs, which are generally sold at much higher prices than on the street, although they are also of higher quality. Goods are paid for anonymously using the cryptocurrency bitcoin and are then shipped to purchasers - sometimes even via regular post. Also traded are counterfeit money, credit card data, knockoff branded goods and, as the attack in Munich made clear, weapons.
Generally offered at higher prices but promising better quality, drugs make up the bulk of darknet sales
The BKA report detailed a growing number of cases of blackmail using special malware known as ransomware. Such software can be purchased by criminals, even those who have few technical skills, on forums in the digital underground. Once installed on unwitting users' computers, commonly via infected files, ransomware automatically encrypts all of the data on the device, forcing victims to pay bitcoin ransoms to restore access to their information.
As the digital world slowly becomes a center of commerce through Industry 4.0, the Internet of Things, criminals are increasingly finding new opportunities for digital attacks. Münch said gaming consoles and even refrigerators had been targeted by denial-of-service attacks, which can make devices unusable until, once again, a digital ransom is paid.
Despite the potential for abuses, the darknet fulfills an important function for people who live under oppressive regimes: It enables the exchange of information and freedom of expression. In those places, law enforcement polices ideas in the way that the German authorities chase cybercriminals. "We have to be flexible and react as quickly as the perpetrators," Holger Münch said. "We have to work together nationally and internationally. And we have to be on top of our game technically and tactically."