Freedom Hosting 2: Forums
In a previous installment, I gave an introduction to the Freedom Hosting 2 database dumps. The main thrust of that article was identifying groups of sites that could be analyzed together, rather than trying to analyze each one of the nearly 11,000 sites individually. One of the most common uses of FH2 sites is forum hosting, which is the topic of this post.
Several results really surprised me! For example, a couple forums have only a handful of legitimate posts and yet tens of thousands of spam posts. The spammers didn’t seem to care that they were posting on boards that nobody was actually looking at.
The even bigger surprise is that I found at least one site that appears to be distributing stolen personal information. I generally believe that fear of the dark web preying on the average consumer is overwrought. Commercials like this one make me cringe so hard I could pull a muscle:
Shadowy figure sitting in the dark, face illuminated solely by a computer monitor, set in front of an ambiguously tech-ish background? Check, check, check. And yet… one of the sites contained in the dump is a Portugese carding site that appears to have posted stolen consumers’ personal information.
I cannot confirm if this data is real, but it certainly seems plausible given the street names, first names, birth years, and zip codes that are contained in the database dump.
Some parts of the analysis were less surprising. I found the typically expected dark web topics like hacking and meta-discussion of Tor itself. On a more depressing note, the data indicates that Freedom Hosting 2 trafficked in a large volume of child exploitation content. I will dig into this and more in the analysis below.
Since the word “forum” has several meanings, I am going to define it narrowly in this article to refer to sites that allow for posting messages in topical threads where other site members can read and reply. Forums are typically subdivided into smaller “boards” that each have a name and a theme in order to organize all of the conversations. This definition of “forum” should be contrasted with “chat room”, where all of the messages are published in one long stream.
In the first article, I pointed out that there were 10,992 active sites on FH2 at the time that it was hacked. Out of those, only 797 sites had any database contents. Of these, I estimate that 159 are running some type of forum software.
To begin analyzing the forums, I ran SQL queries on all of the suspected forums to pull out information such as the forum’s name, the number of posts, the number of accounts, etc. I also pulled samples of usernames, post subjects, etc. in order to get a sense for what the site is: what languages are used? What topics are discussed?
Dozens of sites have either zero or one post, many with titles like, “Welcome to phpBB 3”. These are the messages created automatically when the forum software is first installed. This suggests many of these sites were set up and then never used. It also suggests that many of these sites don’t warrant a deep analysis. The following chart shows the distribution of posts across all of these sites.
The horizontal axis shows each site, and the bar represents the number of posts on that site. The three largest sites are much bigger than the rest of the sites. In fact, only 22 sites have more than 100 posts each, and the bars for most of the sites are so small that they are not even visible. The rest of this post will focus on the 22 sites with at least 100 posts each.
I’ll start with a quick skim of the top 5 sites:
|punbb||s7yzinqketc6k6ke||Это сделал милашка ^_^||25,791|
|phpbb||uudhz333oblcbsru||• TREND FORUM •||4,878|
The names of these sites are not very informative. Simple Machines Forum (“smf”) doesn’t
include the site name in the database table. (The name is stored in a configuration
file, and as I mentioned in the previous post, the leaked data includes only
databases—not files.) For reasons which elude me, the site
tmoxh4kr5xfnvxun appears to
have just set their name to be blank. The Russian name translates (according to Google)
to “It did cutie ^_^”, to which my only reaction is “???”.
The next chart shows the number of posts across all sites grouped by platform.
Although phpBB is one of the dominant forum platforms on the light web, Simple Machines Forum and PunBB are very popular in this dataset. SMF and PunBB are both focused on being simple to install and operate, which may reflect FH2 site owners being less technically oriented and favoring simpler software. These numbers might also reflect a perception of a lack of safety in phpBB, which has a slew of security vulnerabilities that are undesirable when trying to maintain anonymity on the dark web.
Another explanation is that—as we’ll see later—the most popular SMF and PunBB sites are overwhelmed with spam. If phpBB is less susceptible to spam posts, then spam would artificially inflate the apparent share of the SMF and PunBB sites.
Languages & Topics
Next, I reviewed a sample of topics and subject lines from the forums to identify the primary language and topic of each site.
This chart shows the primary languages for the sites, where each site is weighted by number of posts. This is not counting the number of individual posts in each language; instead, I’ve determined the primary language of the site and then weighted it by the number of posts on that site. So if a site uses multiple languages, then the representation of that language would be skewed in this chart.
Unsurprisingly, English is the dominant language.
This chart shows the sites categorized by topic (and weighted by posts in the same manner as the previous chart). These topics are a bit vague, of course, since each site will have various topics being discussed within, but I tried to capture the main focus of the site as best as I could determine from sampling random messages.
Ignoring spam for a moment, the biggest category is child exploitation (CE). These sites exchange pictures and videos depicting child victims of sexual abuse. Due to the sensitive nature of this topic, I won’t post any further details, but taking the message text at face value, these sites are trafficking in extremely illegal and reprehensible content. This finding calls back to one of the claims I discussed in my first post in the series; the hacker who leaked this data justified his/her actions by claiming that Freedom Hosting 2 was providing the infrastructure for massive amounts of child exploitation. This analysis leads me to believe that claim is true.
The remaining four categories are a bit interrelated and sometimes difficult to tease apart. For example, “hacking” forums may describe techniques that useful for illegaly obtaining somebody’s credit card numbers, i.e. “carding”. The “markets” might sell hacking and carding tools. But even if we add all four of these categories together, it is still far less volume than the child exploitation category.
The final category is “spam”, meaning that the site itself is so flooded with spam
messages that I could not determine any other topic. As best as I can tell, some of
these sites were overwhelmed with spam almost from the minute they were set up. Here are
the first 20 posts from the Russian forum
It did cutie ^_^ in chronological order.
|iuriwilewib||Heart iritis; recommended secondarily occult reconstruction.|
|KellyMcCou||Im happy I finally signed up|
|uimirueqabiyo||Two entirely overlying high-dose pneumonia, duplex.|
|ephexoxus||Shocked narrows abduction, coughs, scarring; hypoglycaemics.|
|viijawimow||Mostly survival, measure, to: leprosy snugly.|
|imuceawife||Watch cognitions, ventilate axilla ligaments.|
|tigujazove||R; x-ray brightest focuses jaw.|
|upexoacitusac||The increasing levitra medicine slow-growing specialists herniae.|
|yimusyaji||Allergic cerebello-pontine pessary self-harm pan-intestinal commences.|
|agalamaehuh||They nocturia, thinning mellitus canadian pharmacy timings edges.|
|inofileledepr||Dull, canteen, progeny incidentally, your elliptical dressing.|
|ocegowujeru||Both femur: trapdoor granulocytic, hepatocytes, testing.|
|onbakaket||Ethical non-union, numerous history, tumour.|
|ytiyopan||After diabetic, lifestyles viagra lactate, sulfate transplantation.|
|exokipaqut||Urinary coexistent contraction, neuropathies saponification.|
|aadorenusah||Magendie tretinoin cream putatively levitra grasping elevators units.|
|ahocamjal||What plate interfascicular feeble 107.|
|enasahawjidi||The numbness, distinct ammonium, obturator; periumbilical proximally.|
You can see the first post is by the administrator and is just a test post. The second
post is by a user named
maka and says “test test” in Russian. Nearly all of the rest
of the posts have apparently random names like
yimusyaji and text that appears to be
generated by an AI. As far as I can tell, this site has never had any real users posting