The dark web has a reputation for being a place where people buy drugs and illegal substances. The dark web is viewed as the host to all kinds of murky content: illicit drugs, child abuse material, illegal weapons, extremist paraphernalia, and much more.
But recent studies are showing that the dark web is a misunderstood place, and the connotations the word “dark web” conjure aren’t representative of the vast majority of activity that takes place on the dark web.
Cybersecurity researcher Eric jardine from Virginia tech is saying that only a tiny fraction of the dark web is being used to access tor onion links, and it most cases, the hidden activity aren’t illicit activity (dark web links, dark web markets, dark web porn ).
During the study, Eric Jardine and his team of researchers analyzed data from the Tor network, which is the largest and most popular dark web network.
Through this research, the researchers wanted to gauge how much of the Tor network is being used for hidden (and potentially malicious) purposes. But the Tor network is designed for anonymity which makes this a very difficult task.
Researchers were able to differentiate between users using the TOR to access regular websites on the surface web and those anonymously accessing hidden content from the dark web. Researchers were able to achieve this by monitoring data signatures collected from Tor entry nodes.
Surprisingly, the researchers found that just 6.7 percent of global users were using Tor to access hidden dark web links on the tor network (which might or might not provide illegal or objectionable material).
As Eric Jardine said, “We found that most darkweb users head toward regular web content that could likely be considered benign,”.
Jardine also said, “So even though the Tor anonymity network can be used for some highly malicious purposes, most people on an average day seem to use it more as a hyper-private version of Chrome or Firefox.”
The analysis showed that the use of Tor to access hidden services or regular web content differed between liberal democratic nations and countries with more repressive laws and rights.
Tor Usage by countries.
According to the report, “The average rate of likely malicious use of the dark web in our data for countries coded by Freedom House as ‘not free’ is just 4.8 percent,”.
“In countries coded as ‘free’, the percentage of users visiting Onion/Hidden Services as a proportion of total daily Tor use is nearly twice as much or ~7.8 percent.”
What this research shows is that, people living in liberal democracies are more likely to use the dark web for malicious purposes, whereas people living under repressive regimes in non-democratic countries are more likely to use Tor to circumvent local censorship restrictions and access free information on the internet.
There are a few assumptions being made in this analysis, though, and the Tor Project itself – an incorporated non-profit in the US, has objected to some of the study’s findings.
Executive director of the Tor project, Isabela Bagueros, said:
“The authors of this research paper have chosen to categorise all .onion sites and all traffic to these sites as ‘illicit’ and all traffic on the ‘Clear Web’ as ‘licit’,”
“This assumption is flawed. Many popular websites, tools, and services use onion services to offer privacy and censorship-circumvention benefits to their users. For example, Facebook offers an onion service. Global news organisations, including The New York Times, BBC, Deutsche Welle, Mada Masr, and Buzzfeed, offer onion services…”
“Writing off traffic to these widely-used sites and services as ‘illicit’ is a generalisation that demonises people and organisations who choose technology that allows them to protect their privacy and circumvent censorship.”
It’s also worth pointing out that Eric Jardine and his team do acknowledge in their study that the dark web does contain socially beneficial content, and they also concede that the clear/surface web also host troubling content.
Nonetheless, they justify their “probabilistic” conclusions that access to hidden .onion sites and services is likely for malicious purposes by refrencing previous research suggesting that the hidden dark web websites are disproportionately used for illicit purposes.
If they’re right, the findings suggest the harms of the dark web could be clustering in free countries hosting the infrastructure, while the benefits are more likely to proliferate in repressive countries.
This study is likely to be debated further and people will disagree with the researchers in many complicated ways.
The researchers say that, “‘Free’ countries are likely bearing an increased social cost of some size (via the harms from hosted child abuse content, illicit drug markets, etc.) so that those in not free regimes might have access to a robust anonymity-enhancing tool,”
“Determining if these increased costs are an acceptable burden to pay so that others might exercise basic political rights is an important normative debate to which the present study supplies some modest empirical results.”
The findings of this research are reported in PNAS.