Child sexual abuse material is rampant online, despite considerable efforts by big tech companies & governments to curb it. And consistent with reports, it’s only become more prevalent during the COVID-19 pandemic.
This material is majorly hosted on the anonymous part of internet, the “darknet” where perpetrators can share it with little fear of prosecution. There are currently a few platforms offering anonymous internet access, including i2p, FreeNet & Tor.
Tor is by-far the largest & presents the biggest conundrum. The open-source network & browser grants user anonymity by encrypting their information and letting them escape tracking by internet service providers.
Online privacy advocates, including Edward Snowden championed the benefits of such platforms, claiming that they protect free speech, freedom of thought & civil rights. But they have a dark side, too.
Tor’s perverted underworld
The Tor Project was initially developed-by the United States Navy to guard online intelligence communications, before its code was publicly released in 2002. The Tor Project’s developers acknowledged the potential to misuse the service which when combined with technologies like untraceable cryptocurrency, can help to hide criminals.
Tor is an overlay network, exists “on top” of the web & merges two technologies. The first, onion service software. These are the websites or “onion services” hosted on the Tor network. These sites require an onion address and their servers’ physical locations hidden from users.
The second, Tor’s privacy-maximizing browser. It enables users to browse the internet anonymously by hiding their identity & location. While Tor browser is required to access onion services, it also can be used to browse the “surface” internet.
Accessing Tor network is simple. And while search engine options are limited (there is no Google), discovering onion services is also simple. The BBC, New York Times, ProPublica, Facebook, the CIA and Pornhub all have a verified presence on Tor, to name a few.
Service dictionaries, like “The Hidden Wiki” list addresses on the network, allowing users to get other (often illicit) services.
Child sex abuse material and abuse porn is prevalent
The number of onion services that are active on the Tor network is unknown, although the Tor Project estimates approximately 170,000 active addresses. The architecture of the network allows partial monitoring of the network traffic and a summary of-which services are visited. From all visited services, child sex abuse material is common.
Of the estimated 2.6 million users that use the Tor network daily, one study reported only 2 percent (52,000) of users accessed onion services. This means, most of the users access the network to retain their online privacy, instead of use anonymous onion services.
That said, the same study found from a single data capture that about 80 percent of traffic to onion services was directed to services, which did offer illegal porn, abuse images and/or child sex abuse material.
Another study estimated, 53.4 percent of the 170,000 approximately active onion domains contained legal content, suggesting 46.6 percent of services had content which was either illegal or in a grey area.
Although, scams make a big proportion of those services, cryptocurrency services, drug deals, malware, weapons, stolen credentials, counterfeit products & child sex abuse material also feature in this dark part of the internet.
Only about 7.5 percent of the child sex abuse material on the Tor network is estimated to be sold for a profit. The majority of those involved are not in it for money, so most of this material is just swapped. That said, some services started charging fees for content.
Several high-profile onion services hosting child sex abuse material have been shut-down following extensive cross-jurisdictional enforcement operations, including The Love Zone website in 2014, PlaypEn in 2015 & Child’s Play in 2017.
A recent effort led-by German police & involving others, including Australian Federal Police, Europol & the FBI, resulted in the shut-down of the illegal website Boystown in May.
But one among the largest child sex abuse material forums on the internet (not just Tor) has evaded law enforcement (and activist) take-down attempts for a decade. As of last month, it had 508,721 registered users. And since 2013, it’s hosted over a million pictures & videos of child sex abuse material & abuse porn.
The pedophile (eroticisation of pre-pubescent children), haebephile (pubescent children) & ephebophile (adolescents) communities are among the first adopters of anonymous discussion forums on Tor. Forum members distribute media, support one another & exchange tips to avoid police detection & scams targeting them.
The WeProtect Alliance’s 2019 Global Threat Assessment report estimated more than 2.88 million users on ten forums dedicated to pedophilia & paraphilia interests operating via onion services.
There are big challenges for law enforcement trying to prosecute those who produce and distribute child sex abuse material online. Such criminal activity typically falls across multiple jurisdictions, making detection & prosecution difficult.
Undercover operations & novel online investigative techniques are essential. One example is targeted “hacks”, which offer law enforcement back-door access to sites or forums hosting child sex abuse material.
Such operations are facilitated-by cybercrime & transnational gangland treaties, which address child sex abuse material and the trafficking of women & children.
Given the volatile nature of the many onion services, a focus on onion directories & forums may help with harm reduction. Little is known about child sex abuse material-forums on Tor or the extent to which they influence onion services hosting this material.
Apart from coordinating to avoid detection, forum users also can share information about police activity, rate onion service vendors, share sites & expose scams targeting them.
The monitoring of forums by outsiders can cause actionable interventions, like the successful profiling of active offenders. Some agencies explored using undercover law enforcement officers, civil society or NGO experts (such as from the WeProtect Global Alliance or ECPAT International) to promote self-regulation within these groups.
While there’s a scarcity of research on this, reformed or recovering offenders also can provide counsel to others. Some sub-forums seek to offer education, encourage treatment & reduce harm—usually by focusing on the legal & health issues related to consuming child sex abuse material and ways to regulate urges & avoid stimuli.
Other contraband services also play a role. For example, onion services dedicated to drug, malware or other illicit trading usually ban child sex abuse material that creeps-in.
Why does the Tor network allow such abhorrent material to remain, despite extensive opposition, sometimes even from those within these groups? Surely those representing Tor read complaints in the media, if not survivor reports about child sex abuse material.