From launching ransomware attacks that demand users pay a ransom in Bitcoin, to extorting virtual currencies with the threat of sabotage, criminal organisations continue to find new ways to exploit cryptocurrencies. But they don’t stop there. These currencies are then used in the dark market to facilitate the trafficking of illicit goods, data and services. Wishing to remain anonymous and undetected, cybercriminals are particularly attracted to the anonymity offered by cyber currencies and the dark web. To detect, track and prosecute cybercrimes, law enforcement needs new, data-driven tools and technology-based techniques. The challenge, however, is to ensure that these new tools don’t violate an individual’s fundamental right to privacy. This is where the EU-funded TITANIUM (Tools for the Investigation of Transactions in Underground Markets) comes into play. “The TITANIUM project aims to provide law enforcement agencies with the research they need to develop new techniques for identifying criminals, even when they operate behind the pseudo-anonymity provided by virtual currencies,” says Ross King, project coordinator and data scientist at the Austrian Institute of Technology (AIT) Centre for Digital Safety & Security. “By ensuring that these tools include relevant safeguards, we’ll be able to balance the need for privacy and protection.”
A suite of new tools
Although still a work-in-progress, the TITANIUM project has already developed a number of low-cost and open source tools for cryptocurrency forensics. These include tools for automated privacy-preserving data collection, along with forensic tools to analyse data associated with darknet market and virtual currency transactions. Furthermore, by analysing emerging trends in internet-organised crime and terrorism (IOCT), researchers have created associated requirements for conducting such investigations. “Each of these tools is designed to allow any law enforcement team – not just those at large federal agencies – to carry out cryptocurrency investigations,” explains King. “In addition, our work on cryptocurrency metadata standards will enable improved information exchange between tools and agencies.” All TITANIUM tools have undergone rigorous field testing. Once finalised, the tools will be made available either as open source solutions or as products supported by European SMEs. As part of its work, the project is preparing training sessions that will facilitate the proper uptake and use of all TITANIUM tools.
The project has taken significant steps to ensure its tools are legally compliant with all EU data privacy regulations, including the GDPR. Tools will also provide standardised logging for all activities undertaken by an investigator. This makes legal compliance verifiable for supervisory authorities and supports so-called ‘court-proof’ evidence in legal prosecutions. “We have created a strict firewall between our research and law enforcement work, meaning no data is shared between these groups,” adds King. “Exchanges only take place at the level of the tools and related training.” Making Europe safer TITANIUM’s work is setting the basis for a future where criminals will no longer be able to exploit internet technologies and go unpunished. “Backed by the TITANIUM suite of tools, European law enforcement will be better equipped to investigate crimes involving virtual currencies and darknet markets,” adds King. “As a result, more law enforcement organisations will have access to the tools needed to investigate these crimes more effectively and more efficiently.”
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