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Contributing writer

Watermarks used to track data through Dark Web to Russia, Nigeria

Apr 10, 20153 mins
CybercrimeData and Information SecurityData Breach

How far does stolen data get before a breach is detected?

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Credit: Thinkstock

How far does stolen data get before a breach is detected? That’s the question Bitglass asked — and answered — in a recent experiment.

The Cambell, Calif.-based company went on the Dark Web and planted documents filled with mocked-up data realistic enough to pass as real until the point of actually using it to make financial transitions.

According to a report the company released this Tuesday, it took just 12 days for the data to be looked at more than 1,000 times in 22 different countries. Russia and Nigeria headed up the list.

Meanwhile, according to the latest report from FireEye’s Mandiant, it takes 205 days to discover the average data breach.

“The level of access after just 12 days was extraordinary,” said the report. “Imagine how much further the data would spread in 205 days.”

Bitglass started the experiment with a spreadsheets of 1,500 names, Social Security numbers, and other personally identifiable information — all fake — and saved it under tempting titles including words such as “ssn_data_employees”, “Anthem” and “doxing.”

“We watermarked the spreadsheet,” said Bitglass CEO Nat Kausik. “You can’t see the watermark, but every time the file is viewed, it calls home and registers that its been viewed at this IP address.”

So the statistics about how far the files went don’t include criminals smart enough to disconnect from the Internet before opening documents, he added.

The files were then distributed through a public Dropbox location and a couple of other sites. The most popular location for downloads turned out to be the Onion-pastebin.

“We went to a few Dark Web locations, places that can only be reached with an anonymous browser such as TOR browser,” said Kausik. “With a regular browser, you can’t even get there.”

The company learned that selling stolen data is really easy to do.

“We noticed other posts where people would drop sample files and say, ‘Contact us if you want to buy more,'” he said. “People will buy it and then you just need to figure out what to do with the Bitcoins.”

This is the first year that the company has done the study, so there’s no historical data available about whether distributing stolen data is getting easier or harder, and the path it takes as it travels the Dark Web.

Kausik promised more details in future versions of the study.

“We have some interesting questions to follow up on,” he said.

Meanwhile, the company’s watermarks are available for other uses, as well.

“Customers can turn on watermarking for their documents so they can track where the data goes,” he said. “That’s the primary use of the technology.”