A Parliamentary briefing note has suggested that the Tor network, the encrypted connection to the internet maintained by an open source project, has helped to reduce crime by providing an online resource for trading illegal goods.
The “POSTnote” was intended to address how online crime can be tackled while technologies that anonymise internet users are often used to facilitate criminal behaviour, such as the Silk Road market through which as much as $1bn of narcotics was sold and distributed worldwide.
The note focused on Tor – the web browsing software and services used to provide free encrypted and anonymised internet browsing for users – and the darknet, websites hidden from common search services, which protect their owners anonymity.
“In 2014, Tor had an estimated 2.5 million daily users. A very small fraction of their activity was associated with hidden websites called Tor Hidden Services (THS) that various providers have set up. Most of the debate on the so-called ‘darknet’ is concentrated around THS,” explains the POSTnote.
According to the Tor Project, the vast majority of Tor traffic – 98.5 per cent – is nevertheless used to browse conventional internet sites, either because users don’t want to be tracked or because they need to avoid being tracked. Such users may include researchers, journalists, whistleblowers, users of peer-to-peer file-sharing networks, people trying to access censored information, and people who need access to the wider web, but who live under authoritarian and repressive governments.
In addition, there are some 45,000 websites in which the IP address of the hosting server is protected by Tor. These websites have the .Onion suffix and can only be accessed using Tor. Such websites include legitimate connections for the Duckduckgo website and Facebook, for example. However, they also include sites hosting and churning out malware, as well as illegal or extreme pornographic content, drugs, counterfeit products and weapons.
However, notes the POSTnote, the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Command (CEOP) has played down reports suggesting that the Tor network is a hotbed of child-rape content because the layers of encryption and routing affects download speeds.
Furthermore, POSTnote claims that the use of online mechanisms has helped to cut the level of real-world crime, by shifting it online and reducing the means for provoking dispute. “It has been argued that online drug markets, like Silk Road, transfer parts of the drug dealing business from the streets to the internet and may shorten the supply chain from drug producers to consumers.
“Some say this can reduce the number of drug-related crimes like robbery and shoplifting, and thus lower the social and economic costs of drug misuse,” claims the POSTnote.
It cites The Dark Net, by Jamie Barlett, director of the Centre for Analysis of Social Media, in support, although little research has been done to back up this contention.
The Tor Project has also noted that the design of Tor involved some trade-offs between security and usability which might make it possible to de-anonymise Tor users.
“However, this requires a high level of computer expertise and significant resources. In a leaked document from 2007, the US National Security Agency (NSA) stated that it ‘will never be able to de-anonymise all Tor users all the time’, but with ‘manual analysis’ a ‘very small fraction of Tor users’ can be de-anonymised,” claims the POSTnote.