The onion router, often referred to simply as “TOR”, has many legitimate uses but the way in which it seems to have become core to so many unsavoury, dangerous and illegal online activities is giving lots of us reasons to reflect on how we do a number of things in cyberspace. In the case of TOR it’s all the more bizarre when one recalls that almost everyone involved in developing it was (or is) funded by the US Government.
Initially TOR probably became best known to the wider public for being one of the principal ways in which criminal gangs facilitated copyright theft, the sale of illegal drugs and the supply of fake pharmaceuticals. More recently, TOR has become identified with attempts by Jihadists to recruit new killers and raise funds to make it possible for them to murder more people. And now we see yet another twist in the unlovely story.
Over the Christmas period a talk given by Dr Gareth Owen of the University of Portsmouth at the 31st Chaos Communications Congress received a great deal of media coverage. This is what Dr Owen says his study did
We collected data on Darknet web sites (Hidden Services offering a web page) and measured the number of requests for each site and a total count of the number of sites….. the data does not reflect information on Tor as a whole: only the hidden services part. What proportion of Tor traffic is Hidden Service/Darknet traffic is an open question and although the Tor Project have done some research on this and estimate it at being a few percent, their data is over a very short period and it isn’t safe to rely on this figure.
So, noting the caveats what did Dr Owen observe was happening on or through these hidden services?
Most traffic to sites hidden on the Tor network go to those dealing in images of child sexual abuse.
Although there was plenty of evidence of drug-related activity, copyright theft and frauds of various kinds a staggering 75% of the traffic seen in the study ended up at child abuse web sites.
Nobody is arguing that Dr Owen’s study is definitive or final but it chimes both with other findings or assessments and with many people’s suspicions.
Any discussion about what can and should be done about the Darknet or about online anonymity more generally poses profoundly difficult questions. For all our sakes, for the sake of preserving so much that is truly valuable and life enhancing about the internet, we need to find answers. It’s urgent. The whole edifice is creaking at the seams.