TITANIUM: Tools for the Investigation of Transactions in Underground Markets

Cybercrime – what is the hidden nature of digital criminal activities nowadays?

Vienna (30 July 2018)

The Internet has opened a parallel platform for communications, exchange of information and goods. While the digital dimension may enrich our lives on many different levels, it leaves us vulnerable to new threats. In fact, as the markets, consumers’ habits and interpersonal relationships evolve within digital and virtual arenas, so does crime.

Cybercrime and cyberterrorism are the most common terms to refer to Internet Organised Crime and Terrorism intending the illicit and terroristic activities involving the use of computers or Internet technology.

Although not tangible as physical attacks, cyber-attacks can be as impactful and devastating, in fact nearly all aspects of our life today are dependent on computers. In the past for example, an attack on an industrial plant meant a physical attack. Now the same effect can be achieved - cheaper, easier and with less chance of detection - using a computer. In a similar way, the tangible impact of cybercrime is immediate when we think how the trafficking of weapons on underground markets can enable terrorist attacks.

One common element that has stayed the same between criminals of the past and those of the future is that they want to be anonymous. This is the only way to act outside the law without being accountable for it.

This is exactly one of the special focuses for the researchers, industry and law enforcement agencies working in TITANIUM, an EU project investigating the new cutting-edge technologies used by criminals to remain anonymous while perpetuating cybercrimes. The researchers, including four law enforcement agencies (LEAs) and INTERPOL, aim to develop and implement tools to be able to identify criminals when they operate transactions taking advantage of the pseudo-anonymity offered by virtual currencies, such as Bitcoin.

In order to do so, researchers have shed light to the ever-changing nature of cybercrime and the key elements of investigation and interventions to keep our societies safe, such as:

  • In which space do virtual criminals operate?
  • What types of crimes are perpetuated in the cyber space?
  • Who are the perpetuators? Individuals or organisations?
  • How do they hide their identity and what tools and structures allow them to act anonymously?

The new criminal landscape – the illicit online underground markets

The natural place for cybercrime and cyberterrorism to develop is the darknet.

The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) and Europol define the darknet as a network, built on top of the Internet, that is purposefully hidden; it has been designed specifically for anonymity. The darknet is accessible only with special tools and software — browsers and other protocols beyond direct links or credentials.

Make no mistake though, the darknet is a platform which host many legitimate activities too. For this reason, law enforcement agencies face a double challenge; while they are developing tools to detect illicit activities and prevent crimes, they are doing so ensuring that the privacy of all us is safeguarded as a fundamental human right.

However, the darknet virtual structure is ideal for illicit underground markets to flourish. These are online marketplace platforms bringing together multiple vendors and listing mostly illegal and illicit goods and services for sale.

Criminals take advantage of the anonymity offered by those underground markets, moreover, they make transactions to buy and sell illicit goods using virtual currencies which are design to hide users’ identity. This is why TITANIUM partners are developing on novel data-driven techniques and solutions designed to uncover criminals who hide behind the pseudo-anonymity offered by crypto-currencies, such as Bitcoin. Thus, supporting law enforcement agencies charged with investigating criminal or terrorist activities involving virtual currencies.

The nature of cybercrime

Based on data from Europol and EMCDDA, the main categories of crimes perpetuated on the darknet (in 2016 and 2017) include the selling of drugs, child sexual exploitation material, cybercrime tools and services, counterfeit goods, personal data, weapons.

Nature of Cybercrime

Who are the cyber criminals?

Cybercrime and other Internet Organised Crime and Terrorism activities are often transnational. This fact increases the difficulty in detecting, locating and identifying offenders. Special emphasis has been placed on organised crime groups; however, while these are prevalent in certain types of criminal activities, the criminal landscape seems to be more variegated.

Types of Cybercriminals

The impact of cybercrime

Below is an estimate of the cost of cybercrime. The figures present descriptive data of actual costs incurred either directly or indirectly as a result of cyberattacks actually detected in 2017. It goes without saying that these figures are not able to represent the harm on people’s lives, for example in case of sexual exploitation or radical indoctrination with the consequent facilitation of terror attacks.

Cost of Cybercrime
Cost of cybercrime ─ Total per industry sector. Source: Ponemon Institute, 2017.


TITANIUM is a three-year €5 million project, funded by the European Union aimed at developing technical solutions for investigating and mitigating crime and terrorism involving virtual currencies and underground market transactions.

The project is funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 740558.

The partners in the TITANIUM consortium are:

Bundeskriminalamt (Germany)
Coblue Cybersecurity (Netherlands)
Countercraft S.L. (Spain)
dence GmbH (Germany)
Universität Innsbruck (Austria)
INTERPOL (International Criminal Police Organization)
Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (Germany)
Ministry of the Interior (Austria)
Ministry of the Interior (Spain)
National Bureau of Investigation (Finland)
TNO (Netherlands)
Trilateral Research Ltd. (UK)
University College London (UK)