Cybercrime Podcast. PHOTO: Darknet Diaries.

Jack Rhysider’s Darknet Diaries Delivers True Cybercrime Stories

Podcast shines light into the Internet’s dark corners

David Braue

Melbourne, Australia – Nov. 2, 2023

For all the mainstream media attention that cybersecurity breaches get when they happen, within weeks the stories have often been lost in the noise of yet other breaches — with little follow-up about what happened, who instigated the breaches, and what the consequences were.

The desire to fill this gap has proved to be a winner for Jack Rhysider, whose podcast series The Darknet Diaries registered 22.9 million downloads in 2022 — with an estimated 400,000 listeners tuning in for what has become more than 130 episodes exploring the seamy underbelly of the Internet.

Rather than ruminating on hacks and incidents as they happen, self-professed “slow news junkie” Rhysider has taken a very different approach — he calls it “true crime meets cybercrime” — in which he works backwards from the conclusion of the story, such as when a hacker is sentenced to jail, to paint a rich narrative of what actually happened.

“When breaking cyber news comes out, I don’t like reading it, because we all have more questions,” the former security engineer — who built a career configuring firewalls and intrusion detection systems, securing corporate network perimeters, and analyzing security logs — told Cybercrime Magazine.

Cybercrime Radio: True Crime Meets Cybercrime

The mysterious stuff

“I like to wait until the story is 3, 4, 5 years old and then we go back and now we have all the answers,” he explained, adding that “I make the show for myself, so I get into the stories that I find to be the most interesting and the most satisfying.”

By that point “we’ve found the person who did it, we’ve found all the implications of what happened — what software was at fault at that company, what happened to them. All of these things take years to uncover — and I take that whole soup-to-nuts story and put it into podcast form.”

Despite using the term ‘darknet’ in its title, the podcast covers all kinds of security issues and events, on and off the dark web. “I took this idea of what are the dark parts of the Internet, the things that are hidden and that you don’t know about,” he explained, “and that’s where my focus is — the mysterious stuff.”

Digging into the dark

Since he began the podcast in 2017, Rhysider’s focus on looking behind the curtains of cybercrime has given him the opportunity to talk with and about a broad range of characters, from seasoned cybercriminals to Citizen Lab investigators, Xbox hackers to journalists, PABX hackers to rogue sysadmins.

The heavily produced episodes — which include moody music, bespoke graphics and Rhysider’s gather-round-the-campfire storytelling voice assembled by a strong supporting team — are designed to harness Rhysider’s own enthusiasm for the subjects, as if he had run into a friend at a bar and wants to share a story heard about some amazing hack or another.

Getting to that point takes time and effort, however. Finding guests to appear on the podcast takes “a lot of shoulder tapping” and isn’t always straightforward, since most of the people operating in the shadows of the Internet are doing so exactly because they don’t want to become known.

“By design, it’s very difficult to get the people on my show to talk,” he explains, “and that’s how I like it. That’s how it’s supposed to be, since we get those hard-to-find guests and bring them on — and that creates a whole feeling in itself. It becomes a whole experience to hear some of these guests.”

It was initially “kind of strange” to be canvassing a convicted cybercriminal to talk about “the worst day of his life,” Rhysider said, “but guests appreciate how I really try to get to their motive and not just say ‘you’re stupid for doing this.’”

Guests, he said, often prove happy to get the chance to share their side of the story when the media generally focuses on breathless reporting of the financial and operational damage caused during an attack.

“Once we go through it all, they’re saying ‘this was amazing [because] nobody ever asked me how I felt about all this, and nobody cared to listen to my story in this detail before’…. it was like a therapy session.”

Truth, and consequences

Rather than simply acting as a mouthpiece for criminals, however, Rhysider — who professes to being “allergic” to “any hint of conspiracy theory” — has made a commitment to approaching his podcasts with an eye on the truth.

That means adopting a “journalistic” approach that includes digging behind the headlines with extensive research and analysis of primary sources such as court transcripts and police reports.

“In the last decade or so, truth has become such a blurry thing,” he explained. “If we can all agree that this is the true stuff that’s happening, we can solve all the other issues — but because the truth is so muddy and blurry, we’re not ever going to be all together to solve any of these other things.”

By building what is often an hour-long podcast around a detailed narrative of the truth of past cyber incidents, Rhysider said a key measure of the success of his truth-telling is building that “legacy of ‘this guy comes in and we can trust that what he’s saying is truthful, because he’s backing it up with court transcripts, and calling up people’s friends and family to verify these stories are true.’”

Feedback has been strong and has dished up a few pleasant surprises, Rhysider said, as when he heard from listeners who liked the podcast so much that they decided to ditch their careers and retrain in the cybersecurity industry — or the reports that even NSA cyber teams are being directed to use the episodes in their training.

Ultimately, listeners should, Rhysider said, walk away with the feeling that he “is doing his due diligence in whatever fashion he can to get this as accurate as it can…. That builds up a trust, and a legacy of people believing in it and following it.”

“You don’t want to be rough around the edges; you want it to be very clean, so that it stands the test of time. And that’s what I’m here for in the long run.”

– David Braue is an award-winning technology writer based in Melbourne, Australia.