What many of us likely suspected, but possibly hadn't gone to the trouble—or had the inclination—of finding out for ourselves is that the dark web is full of illegal and dubious stuff, researchers have found.
The researchers, who have been studying and writing about encryption policy, sniffed around with a Tor browser and found 1,547 out of 5,205 total websites live on the dark web engaging in illegal activity.
Those illicit destinations, uncovered in early 2015, covered subjects relating to illegal drugs, money laundering, and "illegitimate" pornography, the Kings College London scientists write in their Cryptopolitik and the Darknet paper abstracted in Survival: Global Policy and Strategy, a journal.
Drugs and violence galore
Drugs, including both sales and manufacturing, accounted for the most sites in one genre of website, at 423.
More esoteric interests, such as violence, which included hitman suppliers, were less prevalent.
Seventeen sites were categorized as "Violence." Those domains not only included hitmen brokers, but also instructional material for carrying out violent attacks.
One hitman vendor apparently offered contract killers for hire with the caveat that his team wouldn't do-in top politicians, among other exclusions, according to the abstract.
Firearms markets made up 42 sites, and Hacking services 96 sites, the report says.
Religious propaganda limited
Interestingly, the most unexpected thing they found was that there wasn't much religious extremism. Although there was some extremism.
Why? Partly because those religious organizations rely on the public Internet to spread their messages.
"The darknet's propaganda reach is starkly limited," the team said.
The researchers used the Tor browser, which surfs the hidden network of layers and encrypted relays through which dark web data is passed," explains a recent ExtremeTech article about the Kings College scientists' work.
"Each node in the network only knows where a packet just was and where it's going next," ExtremeTech says.
In other words, the originating computer and destination website don't see each other directly. The traffic is bounced around the world through rendezvous points, as the neutral nodes are called. The traffic, in each circuit, only sees its entry and exit point, not the whole route. And it's encrypted, too.
Tor's other uses
Like that, Tor should provide secure and anonymized browsing, which is indeed what many people use it for, not criminal activities, as it's known for. This is particularly the case in countries where governments do not tolerate unfettered Internet use.
Tor was famously used by "thousands" in Egypt when the Internet was clamped down in 2011, explains Kings College's Daniel Moore and Thomas Rid, in their paper.
So Tor isn't just for accessing the dark web. Its encrypted relays have purpose for political dissidents, journalists, and others too.
Darknet is the hidden web, the researchers explained. They describe it as a "distinct network supporting cryptographically hidden sites."
But only 3% to 6% of Tor traffic is used to access the hidden sites, they think. And in their paper they are keen to emphasize the legitimacy of Tor's secure and anonymous browsing aspects.
"Tor's anonymization function has received widespread support and praise," Moore and Rid say.
Moore and Rid used automated scanning software to trawl for the sites they were looking for. There isn't an existing index, like a name server registry.
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