The National Science Foundation has funded a study that will research the currently-existing darknet scams that are motivated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The year-long study will be executed by experts in Georgia State University’s Evidence-Based Cybersecurity Research Group (EBCS) – a research outfit hosted at Georgia State’s Andrew Young School of Policy Studies.
Reportedly, the researchers will focus on the threats occurring across darknet markets in the context of darknet sales involving COVID-19-related supplies. The team will monitor the dark web platforms and harvest the necessary information with the goal of sending alerts to darknet users about the imminent hazards.
While commenting on the planned research undertaking, principal investigator Yubao Wu reflected on the value chain issues that have accompanied the rise in COVID-19 cases. According to Wu, the availability of critical COVID-19 supplies such as surgical masks, hand sanitizers and medicines has been unstable.
The on-and-off nature of the supplies has led many people to turn to dark web markets in search of the scarce items. Unfortunately, it appears that people are purchasing substandard products off the darknet sites – with researchers questioning the inherent quality, reliability and efficacy of goods advertised for sale on the dark web.
The group of researchers that will be involved in the proposed study will comprise Georgia State faculty members, including a contingent of graduate students that will work to harvest information from the dark web.
The study design will involve the development of darknet crawlers that will scrape darknet platforms on a weekly basis – examining the site content of more than 30 encrypted hidden web marketplaces and hundreds of Telegram channels, which supply public information to users through cellphones.
To understand the role of dark web crawlers in darknet monitoring systems, it is important to consider the law enforcement background of these tools. Generally, crawlers work to expose suspicious and malicious platforms hidden by the TOR network.
Crawling systems establish databases of suspicious websites by scraping specific linking aspects that are embedded in darknet web pages. Such databases are equipped with automated systems that update information while archiving previous versions of onion websites.
Thus, the above function will enable law enforcement agencies to search both current and previous versions of the TOR database to unearth criminal activity and suspicious websites.
Importantly, this research will study the volumes of dark web purchases of essential COVID-19-related goods before and after they provide alerts and educative tutorials across a host of darknet forums. The information will be restricted to the existing hazards related to the use of substandard or defective medical supplies.
Empirical Data for Future Darknet-Related Policies
Researcher Wu acknowledged the significance of the global COVID-19 crisis in helping experts understand the workings of the dark web. The pandemic offers a unique chance for researchers to observe the dark web ecosystem’s behavior amid a raging catastrophe.
According to Wu, documentation of the planned study will mark an important milestone in dark web monitoring as the availability of critical empirical data will highlight the reality of the darknet response to a global crisis, including the efficacy of educational tools that will be incorporated in the study.
Wu’s team assert that the study will go a long way in the mitigation of social, financial and societal consequences of dark web markets, an aspect that will make critical additions to the fight against the spread of COVID-19.
In addition, the team of researchers believe that the study will advise future policy makers in ensuring that appropriate legislations are directed into the regulation of darknet commerce. The resultant improvement in decision-making will be instrumental in empowering stakeholders to effectively deal with future natural and human-made disasters.