Modern field guide to security and privacy
Reuters

The Dark Web isn’t all dark

Researchers who combed through the Dark Web, a portion of the internet masked by anonymizing software, found that a majority of the content there is legal.   

While the so-called Dark Web is often characterized as the digital domain for drug bazaars and illegal black markets, a new study indicates the majority of content available on this hidden portion of the internet is legal.

An analysis from from cybersecurity firm Terbium Labs that monitors Dark Web sites for stolen intellectual property or customer's personal data found that much of the Dark Web consists of ordinary sites, including graphic design services, personal blog posts, and Scandinavian political parties.

While criminals do take advantage of the Dark Web's cloak of anonymity, the study underscores its value for people and organizations that want to communicate without the risk of monitoring by government agencies on the open web.

The most commonly used tool for accessing Dark Web sites is the Tor anonymous web browser, which masks users' specific internet protocol addresses to hide their identity. Many of the hidden sites that Terbium analyzed aren't any less legal than destinations on the open web, which is much larger than the Tor network. 

According to the Tor Project, the nonprofit that manages the network, there are roughly 60,000 active Tor hidden services (or websites and chat services available only through the anonymous browser) as of Nov. 1. Terbium Labs analyzed 400 randomly chosen sites in its survey.

While these hidden services are only visible using the Tor browser, the anonymity service also allows users to visit almost any destination on the open web. Most of Tor's network traffic comes from people using the tool to protect their privacy while they browse the same websites that could be visited through a browser such as Internet Explorer. Terbium Labs' report focused on the hidden services to study the Dark Web. 

In recent months, Tor has attempted to attract more mainstream attention by highlighting its value for activists, journalists, or anyone looking to browse the web privately. In 2014, Facebook made it possible for users to connect via Tor, as well. In an interview with the Tor Project, Edward Snowden said, "Tor provides a level of safety, a level of guarantee, to the confidentiality, and in some cases anonymity of human communications."

The Tor Project declined to comment for this story.

To be sure, however, Terbium also noted that roughly 45 percent of the content it found was illegal. It discovered sales of illicit drugs on 35 percent of the Dark Web domains it analyzed and counterfeit pharmaceuticals on about 7 percent of sites.

Additionally, it uncovered services related to fraud, exploitation, an illegal hacking. What's more, many may consider much of the legal content found on Tor hidden networks illicit, dangerous, and potentially harmful. 

"Just because content is legal doesn't mean it doesn't have the potential to be dangerous or damaging," said Emily Wilson, Terbium's director of analysis. 

A study similar to Terbium Labs' report published in February said that the most common usage of Tor hidden services involved drugs, illegal pornography, and other illicit activities. Yet, even that study found that 2,482 of the sites didn’t have enough information to be classified illegal or otherwise, while another 1,021 were placed into the "other" category used as a catchall for legal activities.

Hidden websites make up a small fraction of Tor's overall network traffic. In 2014, Tor cofounder Roger Dingledine, who was replaced alongside the rest of the organization's board in July, said hidden services accounted for just 1.5 percent of Tor's traffic. 

"There are important uses for hidden services, such as when human rights activists use them to access Facebook or to blog anonymously," said Mr. Dingledine. He pointed out that "law enforcement agencies use Tor to stay anonymous while they catch bad guys" and "use and run hidden services, too."