A Depiction and Classification of the Stolen Data Market Ecosystem and Comprising Darknet Markets: A Multidisciplinary Approach

Published date01 May 2023
Date01 May 2023
Subject MatterArticles
Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice
2023, Vol. 39(2) 298 –317
© The Author(s) 2023
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/10439862231158005
A Depiction and
Classification of the Stolen
Data Market Ecosystem
and Comprising Darknet
Markets: A Multidisciplinary
C. Jordan Howell1, Taylor Fisher2,
Caitlyn N. Muniz3, David Maimon4, and
Yolanda Rotzinger3
Scant research has investigated the illicit online ecosystem that enables the sale
of stolen data. Even fewer studies have examined the longitudinal trends of the
markets on which these data are bought and sold. To fill this gap in the literature,
our research team identified 30 darknet markets advertising stolen data products
from September 1, 2020, through April 30, 2021. We then developed python web
scrapers to systematically extract information pertaining to stolen data products on
a weekly basis. Using these data, we calculated the number of vendors, listings, sales,
and revenue across the markets and at the aggregate, ecosystem level. Moreover,
we developed a data-driven market classification system drawing from ecological
principles and dominant firm theory. Findings indicate that markets vary in size and
success. Although some markets generated over $91 million in revenue from stolen
data products, the median revenue across markets during the observational period
was only $95,509. Variability also exists across markets in respect to the number of
vendors, listings, and sales. Only three markets were classified as financially successful
1University of South Florida, Sarasota, USA
2University of South Florida, Tampa, USA
3The University of Texas at El Paso, USA
4Georgia State University, Atlanta, USA
Corresponding Author:
Taylor Fisher, Department of Criminology, University of South Florida, 4202 E. Fowler Ave., Tampa, FL
33620-8100, USA.
Email: tsfisher1@usf.edu
1158005CCJXXX10.1177/10439862231158005Journal of Contemporary Criminal JusticeHowell et al.
Howell et al. 299
and stable (i.e., dominant firms). We argue resources should be allocated to target
markets fitting these criteria.
business ecosystem, cybercrime, cybersecurity, darkweb, stolen data
Darknet markets, like traditional e-commerce sites and brick and mortar shops, are a
space for vendors to connect with potential buyers to facilitate transactions (Wall,
2007), both licit and illicit. Although vendors on the darknet advertise a host of legal
commodities, these markets are notorious for the sale of various illegal products such
as drugs (Christin & Thomas, 2019), guns (Holt & Lee, 2022), and stolen data (Ouellet
et al., 2022). The first modern darknet market, Silk Road, was operational from 2011
to 2013. Since the market’s seizure, myriad markets have emerged to fill the void
(Décary-Hétu & Giommoni, 2017; Ladegaard, 2019, 2020; Norbutas et al., 2020;
Soska & Christin, 2015; Van Buskirk et al., 2017). These markets now function as a
complex interconnected network (Ouellet et al., 2022) resembling what Moore (1993)
referred to as a “business ecosystem.”
In the natural sciences, such as ecology and geography, ecosystems are defined as
a community of interacting organisms and their physical environment. Ecosystems
consist of a combination of biotic (living) and abiotic (non-living) components that
interact to form a complex interconnected network. Ecologists have long recognized
the interdependence of organisms and the importance of this connection for evolution
and survival. Scholars from across academic disciplines are now applying ecological
principles to explain interconnectivity and coevolution in non-biological ecosystems.
For example, in a business ecosystem, members coevolve through cooperative, yet
competitive, innovation (Moore, 1993). Using ecological metaphors, Moore (1993)
depicted a cohesive network of companies whose survival and anticipated profits are
contingent on interconnectivity. From an ecological perspective, it does not matter
which businesses survive within the ecosystem if “competition among them is fierce
and fair” (Moore, 1993, p. 86). Some companies, however, become dominant and
disproportionately influence the ecosystem’s evolution. These “dominant firms,” or
oligopolies, have significantly more market shares than their rivals because they are
more stable and generate more revenue than their competition (Forchheimer, 1908;
Stigler, 1937). A dominant firm often has some competitive advantage (e.g., lower
costs, better reputation) that allows them to maintain their position within the business
ecosystem (Gilbert, 1978). Fringe firms, however, are peripheral to the network and
their survival is of lesser (or no) concern. Classifying companies as “dominant” or
“fringe” helps shape our understanding of the power dynamics within the ecosystem
and determine which markets are essential for survival (Forchheimer, 1908).

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