Darkode forum is back, but a shadow of its former self

Last summer, law enforcement agencies from 20 countries joined forces to shut down the notorious Darkode hacking forum. Organizers said they would be back, stronger than ever.

Security researchers have been keeping an eye out for its resurgence ever since and finally found it last week, but instead of being stronger than ever, it's actually insecure and badly configured.

According to Loucif Kharouni, senior threat researcher at Damballa, it feels like a "bad Darkode imitation" that is "just not worth anyone's time."

At its peak, Darkode had hundreds of users who were heavy-weights in the cybercriminal world.

Law enforcement officials called it "the most sophisticated English-speaking forum for criminal computer hackers in the world" and said it "represented one of the gravest threats to the integrity of data on computers in the United States."

Last July, the forum was shut down and 28 people were arrested as part of the takedown.

But forum organizers claimed that most of the staff had escaped the authorities, including the senior members, and that the forum would quickly return with even more security, on the Dark Web.

"We've been looking at the Dark Web, in different forums, to see if we could find this new version and we finally found it," Kharouni said.

But the new Darkode forum doesn't come close to living up to its hype.

"They say that the forums are really secure, and won't be infiltrated by law enforcement or security researchers," he said. "But the search page was completely open and we were able to browse the content of the forum without having to log in."

The forum was meant to be secure, and on the Dark Web, he said. But it was possible to get to it without even using TOR.

"If you don't have the basic knowledge of how to secure your Web server, then your server will be open to anyone to look at," he said. "The security was so bad, that anyone could look at these pages. That's the complete opposite of what you would want to do."

Researchers were able to look through the posts and discussions, and see the member list. The search page was wide open to anyone, whether or not they were logged in.

The Jabber server is also misconfigured, he said, and its administration interface accessible at the default configuration port.

"They tried to bring back the forum too quickly," he said, "and completely forgot their main goal, which was security."

There are now just a couple of dozen members, Kharouni said, most of them coming in from HackForum, which is known for serving beginning hackers.

"This is not what I would call a high-level criminal forum," he said.

He speculated that newcomers to hacking might be impressed with the Darkode name, or with the fact that the forum is supposed to be by invitation only.

But experienced hackers aren't buying it.

"But the forum has lost so much trust that they are not capable of bringing in people," he said.

"That's the problem they're having -- trust. They're able to bring some people in from HackForum because the people there are not very senior in terms of criminality. So, for them, Darkode is still an elite forum and it's a Holy Grail to join that forum. People who don't know the whole story. But the more senior people won't join again. They've moved on to different forums, which are more secure."

As a result, traffic to the new Darkode forum is low, and the discussions are very low-level and innocuous.

On the old Darkode, members were coding botnets, discussing banking Trojans, credit cards, exploit kits, and new malware.

On the new site, members discuss computer security in general, where to get hosting, how to configure systems.

"There's no discussion of banking Trojans, RATs or malware," he said. "I was really surprised by the content itself. It was really poor, nothing to make it appealing or interesting. There's no way for anyone to sell anything or buy anything. Nothing really interesting stood out."

Damballa gave the new Darkode forum an "F" grade for security.


Maria Korolov

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