China’s Hacker Black Market Turns Sights on Smartphones

March 12, 2014 Updated: March 12, 2014

China’s black marketplace for wares used by cybercriminals is stocking its digital shelves with devices used to hack mobile phones. The shift is tied to increased smartphone use in China, which enables more people to access the Internet.

The new focus of hackers could also mean more cyberattacks on mobile phones in the West.

“This affects anybody and everybody because we all use mobile devices,” said Jon Clay, security technology expert at TrendMicro, which recently published a report on the Chinese hacker black market.

“Criminals want access to a large group of victims. The more victims they have access to, the more likely they are going to target that product,” he said.

According to TrendMicro, which cites China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC), an estimated 81 percent of China’s 618 million Internet users accessed the Web with mobile phones in 2013.

Threats against mobile phones are only going to increase, said Clay. He related it to several years back when hackers went almost solely after Microsoft products “because that’s where the most users were.”

This may be even more so, with the proliferation of devices being sold on the Chinese black market that target mobile phones.

The ‘Mobile Underground’

Black markets for cybercriminals typically exist on the Internet beneath the Internet—a place referred to as the “darknet” or the “deepweb.”

Darknet is a broad term referring to websites not openly accessible. These include everything from password-protected forums and chats, to websites that can only be accessed using specialized software.

One of the more well-known sites on the darknet was Silk Road, which was a black market for illegal drugs. It was shut down in October 2013 when the FBI arrested its alleged owner.

“They have their own version of the darknet inside China,” Clay said, noting that they exist mainly on Baidu Web forums and QQ chat groups, which are among China’s most popular methods for online communication.

Researchers from TrendMicro, who gained access to the black markets, saw there is an increasing number of software and hardware devices meant to hack mobile phones.

Clay noted that while the types of attacks used by the devices is nothing new—such as devices to send out malicious spam, or sign up victims for unwanted premium mobile services—the devices are getting easier to use, and are now coming prebuilt. 

This allows even people with little knowledge of computers to get involved in cybercrime. The devices, meanwhile, are getting more targeted and more dangerous.

“This is an industry, it’s a marketplace, and just like in the legitimate world, organizations that sell things are going to track what works from a marketing and sales perspective,” Clay said. “These guys are doing the same thing in the underground.”

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