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Study suggests most "dark web" users are not engaging in illicit activities
A new study finds that some people just want privacy.
- Despite its reputation as a tool for criminals, only a small percentage of Tor users were actually going to the dark web.
- The rate was higher in free countries and lower in countries with censored internet access.
- The findings are controversial, and may be limited by their methodology to be general assumptions.
Various parts of the internet have earned stereotypes about how people use them. Some of these are warranted, and some are mere caricatures. Perhaps no section of the internet is less pleased with its stereotype than the Tor Network, which must contend with being blamed for every crime that originates on the internet.
However, a new study shows that the dark web isn't quite as dark as you might think. A group of researchers led by Eric Jardine of Virginia Tech suggest that only 6.7 percent of global Tor users are going to sites for what are likely malicious reasons.
What do half of those words mean?
For those who don't spend all of their time on the internet, a few of these terms might be new to you. We'll go over them first before we continue. If you do know all of these terms, you can skip ahead to the next section.
Surface Web: The regular internet that you can find with a search engine. You're on it right now; unless these articles are shared in places we don't know about.
Deep Web: The part of the internet not indexed by search engines. This includes things like your email inbox; you can't get there from Google or Bing, but instead have to enter a password to find it from another page. You've probably visited the deep web today, too.
Dark Web: A subsection of the deep web that requires special software to access. While not everything there is bad, there are social media sites, email services, hidden forums, and even puzzle games down there; this is also where you would find the places for illegal markets and other, extremely nefarious, things.
Tor: A kind of software that allows users to browse the internet in near-total anonymity. It does this by encrypting connection data and scrambling the route a computer takes to connect to a site, thus making it difficult, but not impossible, to find who is using a particular website. The potential value of this to criminals should be evident to you.
While it often gets bad press for how it can be used for illicit purposes, it should be said it was created and used by the United States government for often banal purposes. The leaders of the Tor Project often remind the public that "normal people" use Tor for everyday internet activities as well.
As a personal example, I once used it to get around the Great Firewall of China when I wanted to get to the regular, uncensored internet.
Back to the study
The study observed the final destination of a random selection of Tor users to determine if they went to surface websites or more hidden areas of the internet after connecting to the Tor network. This was done by monitoring the data from entry points in the Tor network, which would allow an observer to where someone was going, but not who.
Those going to surface websites were assumed just to be using Tor for anonymity and security, while those going into the dark web were presumed more likely to be using it for illegal reasons.
Despite the popular conception of Tor as a tool for criminals looking to cover their tracks, only 6.7 percent of these users went to sites defined as the dark web, which were themselves not necessarily devoted to illegal activity.
The results were further broken down by country, which revealed another layer of information. The authors noted that in countries deemed "not free" by Freedom House, the rate of possible malicious use goes down to 4.8 percent. In countries considered free, the percentage nearly doubles to 7.8 percent.
What does this mean for the internet?
The dark web might be a little lighter than previously suggested. While it is true that there is some horrible stuff down there, this study suggests the people getting to it using the Tor network are mostly using it for legal, and perhaps even banal, purposes. This interpretation is additionally supported by the difference in usage across countries judged free and not free. In those countries with censorship, where a variety of tools must be used to get to sites like Facebook or Wikipedia, the percentage of users going towards locations on the dark web was smaller.
The authors conclude:
"The Tor anonymity network can be used for both licit and illicit purposes. Our results provide a clear, if probabilistic, estimation of the extent to which users of Tor engage in either form of activity. Generally, users of Tor in politically 'free' countries are significantly more likely to be using the network in likely illicit ways."
Additionally, they mention that the Tor network's infrastructure is predominately in free countries, which then see higher rates of its use to reach places that could advance illegal activities. This find may be of interest to policymakers looking to balance the promotion of autonomy and the freedom of information with the goal of preventing crime.
What’s the catch?
It has been suggested that the internet is the first thing humanity ever created that we don't fully understand. If that is true, it should surprise no one that there are objections to the methods used to study it.
The executive director of the Tor Project, Isabela Bagueros, explained their objection to the study's methodology and assumptions to Ars Technica:
"The authors of this research paper have chosen to categorize all .onion sites and all traffic to these sites as "illicit" and all traffic on the "Clear Web" as 'licit.'
This assumption is flawed. Many popular websites, tools, and services use onion services to offer privacy and censorship-circumvention benefits to their users. For example, Facebook offers an onion service. Global news organizations, including The New York Times, BBC, Deutsche Welle, Mada Masr, and Buzzfeed, offer onion services.
Whistleblowing platforms, filesharing tools, messaging apps, VPNs, browsers, email services, and free software projects also use onion services to offer privacy protections to their users, including Riseup, OnionShare, SecureDrop, GlobaLeaks, ProtonMail, Debian, Mullvad VPN, Ricochet Refresh, Briar, and Qubes OS…...
Writing off traffic to these widely-used sites and services as "illicit" is a generalization that demonizes people and organizations who choose technology that allows them to protect their privacy and circumvent censorship. In a world of increasing surveillance capitalism and internet censorship, online privacy is necessary for many of us to exercise our human rights to freely access information, share our ideas, and communicate with one another. Incorrectly identifying all onion service traffic as "illicit" harms the fight to protect encryption and benefits the powers that be that are trying to weaken or entirely outlaw strong privacy technology."
The critique here is justified; there are legitimate websites hidden behind layers of security which were deemed "illicit" by this study's methods. Many people are just trying to protect their anonymity when using them. However, the study's authors based their assumption on previous studies that demonstrate that these hidden sites are used for illegal activities at a higher rate than other parts of the internet.
Until a more rigorous and ethically ambiguous method of determining what people using the network are doing on these dark websites is utilized, the findings of studies like this will be general and based on broad assumptions.
Despite all of this, we can take a few things from this study: most people using Tor to explore the internet aren't using it for evil, those using it in places with limited freedom of information are even less likely to use it for such purposes, and external factors can have significant impacts on how people use a tool such as the internet.
How would the ability to genetically customize children change society? Sci-fi author Eugene Clark explores the future on our horizon in Volume I of the "Genetic Pressure" series.
- A new sci-fi book series called "Genetic Pressure" explores the scientific and moral implications of a world with a burgeoning designer baby industry.
- It's currently illegal to implant genetically edited human embryos in most nations, but designer babies may someday become widespread.
- While gene-editing technology could help humans eliminate genetic diseases, some in the scientific community fear it may also usher in a new era of eugenics.
Tribalism and discrimination<p>One question the "Genetic Pressure" series explores: What would tribalism and discrimination look like in a world with designer babies? As designer babies grow up, they could be noticeably different from other people, potentially being smarter, more attractive and healthier. This could breed resentment between the groups—as it does in the series.</p><p>"[Designer babies] slowly find that 'everyone else,' and even their own parents, becomes less and less tolerable," author Eugene Clark told Big Think. "Meanwhile, everyone else slowly feels threatened by the designer babies."</p><p>For example, one character in the series who was born a designer baby faces discrimination and harassment from "normal people"—they call her "soulless" and say she was "made in a factory," a "consumer product." </p><p>Would such divisions emerge in the real world? The answer may depend on who's able to afford designer baby services. If it's only the ultra-wealthy, then it's easy to imagine how being a designer baby could be seen by society as a kind of hyper-privilege, which designer babies would have to reckon with. </p><p>Even if people from all socioeconomic backgrounds can someday afford designer babies, people born designer babies may struggle with tough existential questions: Can they ever take full credit for things they achieve, or were they born with an unfair advantage? To what extent should they spend their lives helping the less fortunate? </p>
Sexuality dilemmas<p>Sexuality presents another set of thorny questions. If a designer baby industry someday allows people to optimize humans for attractiveness, designer babies could grow up to find themselves surrounded by ultra-attractive people. That may not sound like a big problem.</p><p>But consider that, if designer babies someday become the standard way to have children, there'd necessarily be a years-long gap in which only some people are having designer babies. Meanwhile, the rest of society would be having children the old-fashioned way. So, in terms of attractiveness, society could see increasingly apparent disparities in physical appearances between the two groups. "Normal people" could begin to seem increasingly ugly.</p><p>But ultra-attractive people who were born designer babies could face problems, too. One could be the loss of body image. </p><p>When designer babies grow up in the "Genetic Pressure" series, men look like all the other men, and women look like all the other women. This homogeneity of physical appearance occurs because parents of designer babies start following trends, all choosing similar traits for their children: tall, athletic build, olive skin, etc. </p><p>Sure, facial traits remain relatively unique, but everyone's more or less equally attractive. And this causes strange changes to sexual preferences.</p><p>"In a society of sexual equals, they start looking for other differentiators," he said, noting that violet-colored eyes become a rare trait that genetically engineered humans find especially attractive in the series.</p><p>But what about sexual relationships between genetically engineered humans and "normal" people? In the "Genetic Pressure" series, many "normal" people want to have kids with (or at least have sex with) genetically engineered humans. But a minority of engineered humans oppose breeding with "normal" people, and this leads to an ideology that considers engineered humans to be racially supreme. </p>
Regulating designer babies<p>On a policy level, there are many open questions about how governments might legislate a world with designer babies. But it's not totally new territory, considering the West's dark history of eugenics experiments.</p><p>In the 20th century, the U.S. conducted multiple eugenics programs, including immigration restrictions based on genetic inferiority and forced sterilizations. In 1927, for example, the Supreme Court ruled that forcibly sterilizing the mentally handicapped didn't violate the Constitution. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes wrote, "… three generations of imbeciles are enough." </p><p>After the Holocaust, eugenics programs became increasingly taboo and regulated in the U.S. (though some states continued forced sterilizations <a href="https://www.uvm.edu/~lkaelber/eugenics/" target="_blank">into the 1970s</a>). In recent years, some policymakers and scientists have expressed concerns about how gene-editing technologies could reanimate the eugenics nightmares of the 20th century. </p><p>Currently, the U.S. doesn't explicitly ban human germline genetic editing on the federal level, but a combination of laws effectively render it <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">illegal to implant a genetically modified embryo</a>. Part of the reason is that scientists still aren't sure of the unintended consequences of new gene-editing technologies. </p><p>But there are also concerns that these technologies could usher in a new era of eugenics. After all, the function of a designer baby industry, like the one in the "Genetic Pressure" series, wouldn't necessarily be limited to eliminating genetic diseases; it could also work to increase the occurrence of "desirable" traits. </p><p>If the industry did that, it'd effectively signal that the <em>opposites of those traits are undesirable. </em>As the International Bioethics Committee <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">wrote</a>, this would "jeopardize the inherent and therefore equal dignity of all human beings and renew eugenics, disguised as the fulfillment of the wish for a better, improved life."</p><p><em>"Genetic Pressure Volume I: Baby Steps"</em><em> by Eugene Clark is <a href="http://bigth.ink/38VhJn3" target="_blank">available now.</a></em></p>
It's hard to stop looking back and forth between these faces and the busts they came from.
- A quarantine project gone wild produces the possibly realistic faces of ancient Roman rulers.
- A designer worked with a machine learning app to produce the images.
- It's impossible to know if they're accurate, but they sure look plausible.
How the Roman emperors got faced<a href="https://payload.cargocollective.com/1/6/201108/14127595/2K-ENGLISH-24x36-Educational_v8_WATERMARKED_2000.jpg" ><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQ2NDk2MS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyOTUzMzIxMX0.OwHMrgKu4pzu0eCsmOUjybdkTcSlJpL_uWDCF2djRfc/img.jpg?width=980" id="775ca" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="436000b6976931b8320313478c624c82" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="lineup of emperor faces" data-width="1440" data-height="963" /></a>
Credit: Daniel Voshart<p>Voshart's imaginings began with an AI/neural-net program called <a href="https://www.artbreeder.com" target="_blank">Artbreeder</a>. The freemium online app intelligently generates new images from existing ones and can combine multiple images into…well, who knows. It's addictive — people have so far used it to generate nearly 72.7 million images, says the site — and it's easy to see how Voshart fell down the rabbit hole.</p><p>The Roman emperor project began with Voshart feeding Artbreeder images of 800 busts. Obviously, not all busts have weathered the centuries equally. Voshart told <a href="https://www.livescience.com/ai-roman-emperor-portraits.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Live Science</a>, "There is a rule of thumb in computer programming called 'garbage in garbage out,' and it applies to Artbreeder. A well-lit, well-sculpted bust with little damage and standard face features is going to be quite easy to get a result." Fortunately, there were multiple busts for some of the emperors, and different angles of busts captured in different photographs.</p><p>For the renderings Artbreeder produced, each face required some 15-16 hours of additional input from Voshart, who was left to deduce/guess such details as hair and skin coloring, though in many cases, an individual's features suggested likely pigmentations. Voshart was also aided by written descriptions of some of the rulers.</p><p>There's no way to know for sure how frequently Voshart's guesses hit their marks. It is obviously the case, though, that his interpretations look incredibly plausible when you compare one of his emperors to the sculpture(s) from which it was derived.</p><p>For an in-depth description of Voshart's process, check out his posts on <a href="https://medium.com/@voshart/photoreal-roman-emperor-project-236be7f06c8f" target="_blank">Medium</a> or on his <a href="https://voshart.com/ROMAN-EMPEROR-PROJECT" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">website</a>.</p><p>It's fascinating to feel like you're face-to-face with these ancient and sometimes notorious figures. Here are two examples, along with some of what we think we know about the men behind the faces.</p>
Caligula<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQ2NDk4Mi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY3MzQ1NTE5NX0.LiTmhPQlygl9Fa9lxay8PFPCSqShv4ELxbBRFkOW_qM/img.jpg?width=980" id="7bae0" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ce795c554490fe0a36a8714b86f55b16" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="992" data-height="558" />
One of numerous sculptures of Caligula, left
Nero<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQ2NTAwMC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1NTQ2ODU0NX0.AgYuQZzRQCanqehSI5UeakpxU8fwLagMc_POH7xB3-M/img.jpg?width=980" id="a8825" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9e0593d79c591c97af4bd70f3423885e" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="992" data-height="558" />
One of numerous sculptures of Nero, left
Scientists use new methods to discover what's inside drug containers used by ancient Mayan people.
- Archaeologists used new methods to identify contents of Mayan drug containers.
- They were able to discover a non-tobacco plant that was mixed in by the smoking Mayans.
- The approach promises to open up new frontiers in the knowledge of substances ancient people consumed.
PARME staff archaeologists excavating a burial site at the Tamanache site, Mérida, Yucatan.
To understand ourselves and our place in the universe, "we should have humility but also self-respect," Frank Wilczek writes in a new book.