An investigation by the BBC’s File on 4 radio program found these encrypted apps are taking over from the dark web, as the venue of choice for exchanging criminal content.
It comes as the dark web is being increasingly targetted by law enforcement officials. In November last year, one of the largest hosting services for the ‘Dark Web’ Tor network (namely Daniel’s Hosting in Germany) had its entire roster of more than 6,500 sites erased in a hack by an unknown attacker.
These successful operations against dark websites are apparently behind the move by criminal to use secure messaging apps, which have both a public and encrypted side.
The public side of the app is listed online so users can search and join groups advertising drugs, stolen financial data and other illegal material for example.
Peer-to-peer encryption is only engaged when a user joins a group, a move which experts say typically puts these users beyond the reach of law enforcement.
The BBC investigators apparently found evidence that paedophiles were using both Telegram and Discord to give people access to child abuse material.
Even more concerning is that links to these Telegram groups are hiding in plain sight and can be located in the public comments section of YouTube videos.
Apparently these links in the Youtube comment section contain code words that are indexed by search engines. If users click on these links, they are then taken to the closed group (usually a chatroom where material can be shared).
The researchers apparently confirmed that at least one of these groups contained hundreds of indecent images of children.
There were good reasons that paedophiles hid links on YouTube, cyber-crime expert Dr Victoria Baines told the BBC.
Dr Baines is a former Europol officer and adviser to the UK’s Serious and Organised Crime Agency (the National Crime Agency’s predecessor).
“YouTube is indexed by Google, which means if you are an ‘entry level’, for want of a better phrase, viewer of child abuse material you may start Googling,” she reportedly said. “And while Google tries to put restrictions on that, [the links] are publicly accessible on the web, so it is a means of getting people who are curious or idly searching into a closed space, where they can access material.”
Of course it is worth stressing that Google and its YouTube service, have invested heavily in fighting against child abuse material, and will take it down when they become aware of it.
Telegram meanwhile said reports about child abuse images are usually processed within one hour. Discord likewise said it proactively tries to protect the safety of its users, and urges users to only chat with or accept invitations from individuals they already know.
The BBC’s File on 4 investigation also unearthed widespread abuse of these apps to sell stolen payment card data.
All of the details of the illegal material revealed by its investigation has been passed to the National Crime Agency.
One expert lamented the fact that criminals are now exploiting apps that had been designed to protect people’s privacy.
“Encryption apps started out with good intentions – it was to help people who couldn’t speak up without this software,” explained Boris Cipot, senior security engineer at Synopsys.
“For example, news reporters in countries where the truth could get them in jail or even cost them their lives, and it should protect abused people that are on the run from their partners so that they can keep up communication with people without the abuser finding them,” said Cipot. “Also, through the Snowden revelation, it helped protect private communications from government spying.”
“Since this idea started, encryption in all types of software is a feature which users do not want to be without,” Cipot added. “Some have valid reasons, and some are just following the crowd when they say they need it. But, unfortunately, even if this functionality was created for good use, there are those that will abuse it for negative reasons. The Silk Road Darknet portal is one of the most well-known negative uses, and unfortunately those abuses will continue.”
“The issue is that once you add some sort of governance or tracking into encryption enabled apps, the whole idea about security/anonymity/privacy is gone,” warned Cipot. “But I hope that there will be a technology developed that will disable the misuse of encryption functionalities for human-harming actions.”
The dark web has been a source of concern for many years now, with users free to explore material that is banned in most countries.
The Tor browser for example is designed to protect the anonymity of web users, and it has become known for its use by dark websites selling contraband – ranging from illegal drugs to firearms, with the Silk Road marketplace being the most famous example.
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