Researchers who analysed 23,000 free live streamlining websites across 5,685 domains have found as much as half of the video overlay ads are malicious, exposing visitors to deceptive advertisements, malware, malicious browser extensions, and fraudulent scams.
The study was carried out by researchers from KU Leuven Belguim Department of Computer Science and Stony Brook University and detailed in the paper “It’s free for a reason: Exploring the ecosystem of live streaming services”.
After identifying the streaming sites, they used a semi-automated tool to perform 850,000 visits and analysed over a terabyte of traffic in an effort to map the streaming ecosystem, which consists of hosts, site publishers, advertisers, and aggregators.
"Until now, free livestreaming services (FLIS) have mostly been analysed from a legal perspective. Our study is the first to quantify the security risk of using these services,” said M. Zubair Rafique of KU Leuven Department of Computer Science and iMinds.
The researchers found that video overlay ads were a popular method for attempting to infect machines that visit free live streaming services.
“Our analysis reveal that one out of two ad websites, presented to the FLIS service users, is malicious in nature, offering malware (zero-day in one case), showing fake law enforcement messages to collect purported fines, and luring users to install malicious browser extensions. Additionally, we unintentionally find seven FLIS domains distributing malware disguised as as an application to watch free live streams on mobile devices,” the researchers note.
Nearly a quarter of sites in the study were hosted on servers in Belize. The researchers found that more than 60 percent of the streams originate from five companies located in Switzerland, the Netherlands, Sweden, Canada, and Belize.
The researchers also note that while advertisers were the root cause for malicious ads, the illegal streaming services were more inclined towards malicious advertisers to monetise the service, making them partly responsible for exposing visitors to risks.
The main page redirects the researchers took visitors to a page hosting a bogus version Adobe Flash Player, as well as pages with a pop-up that lock the browser.
During their experiment with overlays ads, the researchers downloaded 12,683 malware payloads, which they checked against the Google’s Virus Total database. In total, they identified 1,353 unique binaries.
It also appears illegal free streaming sites are just as keen as news publishers to eliminate the effects of ad blocker technology with 16 percent of the top 1000 aggregator domains employed an anti-ad blocking script.
The researchers plan to release the site classifier they developed to the public, noting it can be used by law enforcement to identify previously unknown illegal streaming sites.
“Since only a handful of channel providers are responsible for broadcasting the majority of the live streams, we argue that a strict control on the operations of these entities, can effectively minimise the volume of illegal live streaming,” they wrote.