Dangerous People on the Internet in the Year 2022
Last year, some of the remains of the Trump era and the Covid-19 pandemic seemed to finally be receding only to make way for new threats. Newer digital threats, such as India's slide into online repression and reckless cybercriminals are proving more ruthless than ever. But in the network, there is no shortage of new sources of instability and disruption. Here are our picks for 2022.
The cryptocurrency world has been plagued by money laundering, theft, and fraud, from dark web drug markets to billions of dollars stolen from crypto companies. But one of the most dangerous players in the crypto economy seems to be moving on the horizon. During the collapse of cryptocurrency exchange FTX, Sam Bankman-Fried was accused of fraud of over $8 billion. The effect on the cryptocurrency economy could be much bigger and the mess of trading and user money management caused by the collapse of FTX is still not fully resolved. The company's new CEO, John Ray, who also dealt with the bankruptcy says he never saw a bigger mess under Bankman-Fried's leadership. FTX invested huge sums of users' cryptocurrencies into his own company, Alameda Research, which also went bankrupt. In addition to these massive losses, Bankman-Fried is a particularly worrying figure due to the problems of the crypto economy.
The volatile power of once the richest man in the world suddenly threatened the central institution of the Internet. Musk's immediate firing of thousands of Twitter employees threatens the central functions of the service. He justified the lifting of Twitter bans on neo-Nazis like Andrew Anglin and former President Donald Trump (after the latter was removed from Twitter after it was used to incite the January 6 riots and attack the US Capitol building) as freedom of speech arguments. But Twitter's new owner has also reduced the number of content moderators, leaving a single employee to monitor child abuse on Twitter across Japan and the Asia-Pacific region. Just days after the acquisition of Twitter, Musk briefly tweeted, then deleted the misinformation that the man who attacked the husband of US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi in October was his gay lover. Twitter did not collapse under Musk, as some of its doomsayers predicted. But it can become the worst version of itself.
The dark web marketplace for drugs and hacked data ( AlphaBay) was shut down in 2017 after its creator Alexandre Cazes was found dead in a Thai prison. Last summer, four years after the massive bust, AlphaBay relaunched under the leadership of its founder and top lieutenant of Cazes known only as DeSnake. After a year, DeSnake pulled AlphaBay back to the forefront of the dark web's competitive criminal market. He set more rules about what can be sold on the black market than Cazes ever did. He banned the sale of things like fentanyl and ransomware. But AlphaBay remains a vibrant criminal marketplace for hard drugs and stolen data, and it may be harder than ever to shut it down. DeSnake has rolled out security updates to the site, for example allowing it harder to trace cryptocurrency. Monero is used for purchases on the dark web instead of Bitcoin.
In 2022, North Korea continued to stand out as the world's largest perpetrator of state-sponsored cybercrime. Its government's hackers continued to extort hundreds of millions of dollars, mostly in cryptocurrencies from their targets around the world. According to blockchain analysis, North Korean hackers made $80 million in the first five months of 2022 alone, more than the previous two years combined. About $600 million of that came from just one heist. All this goes to finance one of the worst regimes in the world, with hundreds of thousands of political prisoners in concentration camps and a desire to fire rockets over the heads of their neighbours.
The plague of ransomware continued to plague the world in 2022, and no group demonstrated this threat better than Conti. After Russia invaded Ukraine, Conti declared his full support for that war, a decision that led to one of his disgruntled members leaking a massive amount of intra-group communications online. Conti later sold out, but their name only. Its hackers may have rebranded and disbanded, but the chaos of their business model undoubtedly remains.
Chinese hackers have focused on espionage for years, but recently, one group, APT1 has emerged as the closest thing China has to North Korea's state-sponsored cybercriminals. Just last month, the group was linked to the theft of $20 million in Covid-19 relief funds, an unprecedented looting of US government funds by a Chinese state-backed hacking outfit. Meanwhile, APT1 was also responsible for dozens of intelligence-focused intrusions.