CyberDNA Research Seminar

February 23, 2017 - 12:30 PM to 2:00 PM
Woodward 135
Lecture title: Understanding the Social Dynamics Operating Behind Technical Forms of Cybercrime
Speaker: Dr. Tom Hold School of Criminal Justice Michigan State University

Thomas J. Holt is an Professor in the School of Criminal Justice at Michigan State University. His research focuses on computer hacking, malware, and the role of technology in facilitating crime and deviance. Dr. Holt has been published in numerous academic journals, including Crime and Delinquency, Deviant Behavior, and the Journal of Criminal Justice, as well as multiple books on cybercrime. He also directs the MSU Open Source Research Laboratory dedicated to exploring the landscape of cyberthreats through on-line research, and the International Interdisciplinary Research Consortium on Cybercrime (IIRCC) dedicated to linking the social and technical sciences to better understand cybercrime and cybersecurity issues.

When some hear the phrases computer hacking, malware, or cybercrime they may think only of the technical expertise needed to engage in these activities.  The human actors behind these offenses should not be ignored, as the social and behavioral drivers that influence their activities can be used against them.  For instance, computer scientists and criminologists have examined the emergence of cybercrime markets offering stolen personal information, malware, and hacking services via forums, IRC, and the Dark Web over the last decade.  These studies demonstrate that cybercrime and data theft have become monetized, enabling high skilled hackers to sell access to their resources to individuals who may or may not understand the technical aspects of their services.  Participants in these markets appear to depend on trust between buyers, sellers, and market operators in order to function and facilitate the exchange of goods and services.  Trust should be inherently easier to establish in online markets due to the potential transparency evident in the text-based nature of the market.  Interested buyers can identify the complete landscape of vendors within any given market and compare their advertisements and customer comments.  At the same time, the inability to physically verify claims about a product or identify the seller make it difficult to establish trust between buyers and sellers without first completing a transaction. 

            Virtually all research on cybercrime markets to date are based on posts and content generated from forums that could be accessed via google searches or sites that require an individual to register a unique user name and password.  Such communities may not operate with the same degree of trust or insularity as closed markets where individuals are only given access after being vetted and vouched by other participants.  There is, however, virtually no research on the factors that lead individuals to be accepted or rejected from closed markets on-line.  It is unclear how individual reputations are validated or the factors that may influence an individual to be specifically excluded from a community.  This presentation will first present an overview of the processes of cybercrime markets generally, then examine the practices of actors operating in a recently shuttered, but highly active and esteemed hacker community with a layered vetting and approval process in order to join.  This analysis uses aspects of Gambetta's (2009) signaling theory to assess the factors associated with an individual's perceived trustworthiness.  Individuals attending this presentation will gain an appreciation for the role of trust in on-line illicit markets, the ways that social relationships can be affected to hinder the practices of cybercriminals, and the need to better understand the human actors behind various cyberthreats. 

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