UNODC report: darknet cybercrime is on the rise in Southeast Asia

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Bangkok (Thailand), 25 February 2021 - The United Nations Drugs and Crime (UNODC) today launched the report “Darknet Cybercrime Threats to Southeast Asia”, a first of its kind analysis of darknet-enabled threats in the region. The report assesses the Darkweb from the viewpoints of users, criminals, and law enforcement with a particular focus on cybercrime targeting countries in Southeast Asia.

“The use of darknets and the Darkweb has increased in recent years, and the COVID-19 pandemic also appears to have further exacerbated the trend, including by criminals with no prior cyber experience. Darkweb forums normally dedicated to narcotics have begun offering COVID-19-related merchandise including fraudulent COVID-19 vaccines, hydroxychloroquine, and personal protective equipment. New users have also started seeking support from more experienced darknet criminals about criminal opportunities. The threat is increasing, and UNODC is committed to counter this criminality”, remarked UNODC’s Chief of the Cybercrime and Anti-Money Laundering Section, Neil J. Walsh.

Darknet criminal marketplaces have become more popular during the COVID-19 pandemic, due to a combination of technologies offering greater anonymization for both sellers and buyers. Features such as escrow payment systems and reputation metrics have increased. Cryptocurrencies are the payment method of choice, and while law enforcement try to identify the criminal end-users, the use of crypto-mixers, tumblers, or laundry services break the link between the initial purchase of cryptocurrencies and the final payment destination. This makes it more difficult for law enforcement to follow the money and bring high-risk offenders to justice. Alexandru Caciuloiu, Cybercrime and Cryptocurrency Advisor, highlighted that Bitcoin remains the main cryptocurrency used on the Darknet, but privacy coins such as Monero, Litecoin and Bitcoin Cash are perceived as offering greater anonymity to cybercriminals.

English tends to be the predominant working-language on darknets, but content in Southeast Asian languages has recently varied, indicating a diversified client base and possible attempts to obfuscate the origins of criminal marketplaces.

Indonesian. Thai, Tagalog, and Vietnamese languages found on Darkweb sites (2016-2019)
Indonesian. Thai, Tagalog, and Vietnamese languages found on Darkweb sites (2016-2019)

Drugs are still the most common category of illicit products available in darknet markets. The combined total number of items on sale in four dominant darknet marketplaces to the end of 2019 was just under 140,000 with almost 95,000 drug and drug-related items. The types of drugs most commonly available include methamphetamine, MDMA, amphetamine, cannabis, cocaine, heroin, opioids, LSD, psychedelic mushrooms, ketamine, and prescription drugs particularly benzodiazepines. Precursor chemicals to produce synthetic and semi synthetic drugs are also traded on darknet sites catering to the region. “Anonymous darknet marketplaces have provided safe havens for organized crime groups to openly advertise illicit commodities in recent years, and COVID has accelerated the trend. It is undeniable that a regional counter-darknet cybercrime strategy is needed that improves cross-border cooperation, law enforcement capacity and results”, noted Jeremy Douglas, UNODC Regional Representative for Southeast Asia and the Pacific. He added, “We will be working with our ASEAN and international partners to build support for this to happen in the near to medium term.”

<p>Percentage of drug types available on four popular marketplaces in December 2019</p>

Percentage of drug types available on four popular marketplaces in December 2019

<p>Percentage of products and services available on Darkweb Marketplaces</p>

Percentage of products and services available on Darkweb Marketplaces

Darknet related arrests in Southeast Asia have increased in recent years, indicating that criminals perceive the region as a low-risk/high-gain operational environment where the likelihood of detection is relatively low. A prominent example is the arrest of the main administrator of the of the infamous darknet marketplace AlphaBay who was residing in Thailand when he was arrested in July 2017 following a coordinated effort of Thai and foreign law enforcement authorities. Similar arrests have been made in other Southeast Asian countries for the production, possession and dissemination of online child sexual exploitation materials. These cases are the result of international investigations initiated outside of the region, with few originating within the region itself. Local capability is limited and specialist operational knowledge regarding darknet marketplaces, anonymizing technologies, cryptocurrency investigations and intelligence-gathering need to be prioritized, ideally with a ministerial or senior official and lead agency for cyber affairs.

UNODC works closely with countries in the region to respond by increasing awareness, assisting with policy development and cross border cooperation, and improving the capacity for countries to conduct investigations, prosecutions and adjudications of cybercrime, within a strong human-rights framework.

Click here to download the report

Click here to download the report in Bahasa Indonesia

Click here to download the report in Thai

Click here to download the report in Vietnamese

Click here to learn more about UNODC's Regional Programme and work on cybercrime

Click here for information about the UNODC Global Cybercrime Programme