The dark web features a shady reputation. Hidden below the transparency & visibility of the internet’s surface, the complex anonymity networks that structure the dark web host & distribute all types of murky content: illicit drugs, maltreatment material, illegal weapons, extremist paraphernalia & more.
But the dark web is additionally a misunderstood place and the connotations its name conjures-up aren’t representative of the overwhelming majority of activity that takes place in its anonymous confines, consistent with new research.
A new study led by cybersecurity researcher Eric Jardine from Virginia Tech suggests that only a little fraction of the dark web is getting used to access hidden sites and in this case, the hidden activity isn’t even necessarily illicit activity (although given the dark web’s shadowy corners, it could be).
In the study, Jardine & his team analyzed data from the Tor network, generally considered to be the most important & hottest network enabling anonymous, private access to uncensored web, via use of special software that connects to a system of onion routers designed to make sure the user’s anonymity.
There’s nothing necessarily immoral or wrong about any of this. The deep web, because it is known, is just the parts of the web that are not indexed by regular search engines (as against the surface web). A part of the deep web, is the dark web & parts of the dark web do host malicious content.
For this reason, the researchers wanted to measure what proportion of the Tor network could be getting used for hidden (potentially malicious) purposes. There is no particularly easy way of doing this, given the Tor network is meant to supply anonymity.
But by monitoring data signatures collected-from Tor entry nodes, the team was able to differentiate between users using Tor to anonymously access regular sites on the surface web & others employing the system to access hidden content in the dark web.
Surprisingly enough, the researchers found 6.7% of worldwide users were using Tor to access hidden services on the dark web (which might or won’t provide illegal or objectionable material).
“We found that the most of Tor users head toward regular web content that would likely be considered benign,” Jardine says.
“So even though Tor anonymity network are often used for some highly malicious purposes, most of the people on an average day seem to use it more as hyper-private version of Chrome or Firefox.”
Even more interestingly, analysis showed that the utilization of Tor to access hidden services or regular web content differed between liberal democratic nations & countries with more repressive laws & rights.
“The average rate of likely malicious use of Tor in our data for countries coded by Freedom House as ‘not free’ is simply 4.8%,” the authors write in paper.
“In countries coded as ‘free’, the share of users visiting Onion/Hidden Services as a proportion of total daily Tor use is almost twice the maximum amount or ~7.8%.”
In other words, people living in liberal democracies are more likely to take advantage of the dark web for malicious purposes whereas users living under repressive regimes in non-democratic countries could-be more likely to use Tor to circumvent local censorship restrictions & access free information on the web.
There are a couple of assumptions being made in this analysis, and the Tor Project itself an incorporated non-profit within the US has objected to a number of the study’s findings.
“The authors of this research paper have chosen to categorize all. Onion sites and every one traffic to those sites as ‘illicit’ & every one traffic on the ‘Clear Web‘ as ‘licit’,” executive director of Tor Project, Isabela Bagueros, told Ars Technica.
“This assumption is flawed. Many popular websites, tools & services use onion services to offer privacy & censorship-circumvention benefits to their users. For instance, Facebook offers an onion service. Global news organisations including The New York Times, BBC, Deutsche Welle, Mada Masr & Buzzfeed, offer onion services.
“Writing-off traffic to those widely-used sites & services as ‘illicit’ is a generalization that demonizes people & organizations who choose technology that permits them to guard their privacy & circumvent censorship.”
It’s worth remarking that Jardine & his team do acknowledge in their study that dark web can contain socially beneficial content and they concede that the clear/surface web hosts troubling content.
Nonetheless, they justify their “probabilistic” conclusions that access to hidden. Onion sites & services is probably going for malicious purposes by pointing to previous research suggesting that the hidden dark web sites are disproportionately used for illicit purposes.
If they’re right, the findings suggest the harms of dark web might be clustering in free countries hosting the infrastructure while the advantages are more likely to proliferate in repressive countries.
While the study is probably going to be debated further, it makes for a few complicated takeaways & the dark web was already plenty complicated.
“‘Free countries are likely bearing an increased social-cost of some size (via the harms from hosted maltreatment content, illicit drug markets, etc.) in order that those in not free regimes may have access to a strong anonymity enhancing tool,” the researchers write.
“Determining if these increased costs are a suitable burden to pay in order that others might exercise basic political rights is a crucial normative debate to which this study supplies some modest empirical results.”
These findings are reported in PNAS.
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