The ‘darkweb’ has become notorious for hosting drug markets where cocaine and heroin are sold freely, alongside videos of child abuse.
But it’s not quite as ‘dark’ as people imagine – or at least the way people use it isn’t.
Researchers from Virginia Tech analysed how people actually use the Tor anonymity network and found that many users use it for privacy, not for crime.
Virginia Tech assistant professor Eric Jardine and his colleagues found that, on an average day, only 6.7 percent of users globally likely employ Tor for malicious purposes.
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Jardine said: “We found that most Tor users head toward regular web content that could likely be considered benign.
“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.”
Tor is a set of tools designed to allow users to remain anonymous, and can be used for browsing, messaging and posting messages online.
It works by ‘bouncing’ encrypted data around dozens of relay computers on its way to and from your PC – so if someone tries to ‘see’ where you are, they can’t.
The researchers found that in liberal democratic countries, Tor users were more likely to use it for nefarious purposes.
They write: “The results suggest that anonymity-granting technologies, such as Tor, present a clear public policy challenge and include clear political context and geographical components.
“Leaving the Tor network up and free from law enforcement investigation is likely to lead to direct and indirect harms that result from the system being used by those engaged in child exploitation, drug exchange, and the sale of firearms.”
Tor is used by around 2.5 million people per day, according to the network’s own estimates.
The most notorious ‘darkweb’ sites are ‘hidden’ and can’t be accessed using the normal internet.
To access these sites, you use a customised browser called Tor Browser.
“This framework suggests political need drives the use of Tor in repressive regimes,” Jardine said.
“It also suggests that the opportunity to use Tor to mask bad activity is the primary incentive for use in liberal democracies. The derivative prediction of this model would be that harms and benefits should cluster unevenly around the world. But initially, I did not have a way to test this prediction.”
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