Hacker forums have become a critical global channel through which aspiring criminals are inducted into the ranks of professional cybercrime, an analysis of some of the most popular discussion sites by security company Imperva has found.
Hacker forums are often seen as sinister sideshows to the main story, little more than places cybercriminals go to let off steam, make contacts and do business.
Imperva's Monitoring Hacker Forums report, which carried out a content analysis of 18 of the most popular forums frequented by up to 250,000 criminals from around the world, suggests that this might be only part of a more complex picture.
Imperva's initial hunch was that security researchers might learn something by paying attention to what hackers actually talk about as opposed to the end results of their handiwork.
On the face of it, the analysis yielded few surprises. The two biggest interests were SQL injection and DDoS, each with 19 percent discussion volume, both mainstream themes among security hats.
Facebook and Twitter were also the most widely-discussed social networks, largely in relation to buying and selling bogus endorsements. These are exactly the sort of things one might expect hackers to be talking about. It would be more surprising if these weren't important topics.
On a deeper level, however, a lot of activity on these forums was directed towards 'beginner hacking' (28 percent of threads) and 'hacking tutorials' (5 percent).
"Posting a good tutorial can gain its author reputation in the community, and can lead to job offers, collaborations, and invitations to deeper, invitation-only forums. Taken together, about a third of the conversations are dedicated to hacker training and education, which make them the main topic of the forum," noted the report's authors.
Add to this the fact that hacker forums are now a global phenomenon, covering every language and interest imaginable, and their importance for researchers could simply be what they imply about the nature of professional hacking as an industry.
Forums are clearly now critical means through which the industry finds, trains and equips new talent to take up roles as cybercriminals. Indeed, many often start with the most basic rungs of the profession as social engineering "e-whores", selling porn in which they impersonate women to unsuspecting punters looking to make digital contact with strangers.
"By examining what information hackers seek out or share in these forums, we can better understand where they are focusing their efforts," said Imperva CTO, Amichai Shulman. "If organisations neglect SQL injection security, we believe that hackers will place more focus on those attacks."
An alternative interpretation is that disrupting forums might fragment and dilute their importance, slowing the flow of new hackers into an industry the authorities seem to have lost all control over. This hope seems far-fetched. For now, forums remain an important intelligence-gathering tool for security researchers that few would be happy to lose access to.