Eric Jardine looks at the dark web analytically, as if it’s an ever-evolving puzzle that frequently leads into the darkest corners of the Internet.
Jardine, an assistant professor of political science at Virginia Tech, believes that certain types of dark-web sites should be restricted, and on Thursday Virginia Tech hosted a discussion on the dark web and U.S. public policy implications at the U.S. Capitol. He also said that the U.S. government is actively combating and facilitating illegal activity on the dark web through its funding of the dark-web browser the Tor Project.
Jardine, a dark-web expert who cut his teeth on the subject from 2014-16 as a fellow with the Centre for International Governance Innovation, now teaches classes on politics, cyber security and dark-web threat analytics. After speaking with Homeland Security Today, he participated Friday in Virginia Tech’s full-day conference “Understanding the Dark Web and Its Implications for Policy” at its Executive Briefing Center in Arlington.
HSToday: Tell us about the event Friday and why you are here.
Jardine: A lot of the uses on the dark web today are obviously pretty bad and dealing with the negative excesses is something that has become increasingly important. Tomorrow is a full-day conference leveraging research expertise from American and international experts on dark web and cryptocurrency questions, to link ongoing state-of-the-art research to what is happening on the dark web, how do you de-autonomize portions of the dark web, how do you learn what’s happening on these various technologies and linking that all with policy-relevant questions, like what should we do?
HSToday: How difficult is it to map activity on the dark web?
Jardine: So, the dark web has been mapped in discreet periods fairly extensively. The problem is there is incentive for high levels of churn among these sites, so you can get a pretty decent static snapshot to say this is what this was like in this period of time, but the .onion URLs (with the Tor Program) churn over fairly quickly. So, you will find a bunch of dead links if you ever try to peruse the dark web, because the operators of the sites pull down the content, start it up new under a new domain, or the site will just lay fallow or be taken down by law enforcement. The rate of churn makes it a very unstable picture, but looking at long-term averages, roughly speaking, there’s probably around between 30,000 and 60,000 .onion addresses in one point in time. But that’s pretty wide-range — and so you see this fluctuation that makes this a process rather than a thing, a living problem that we need to study.
HSToday: How easy is it to buy an Uzi on the dark web?
Jardine: Probably fairly easy, would be my guess.
HSToday: Shipped to the buyer’s house – no problem.
Jardine: Probably. An individual consumer runs a series of risks when they do something like this, because it’s asynchronous transactions. You don’t know who you’re buying from, you don’t know if they’re legitimate. They could be law enforcement, but there are a series of steps that you have to go through. The first is you have to get access to the Tor Project — you download the browser. The second step is that you need access to the markets that are selling, and there is not a readily made search engine for the dark web, so you have to go to the Tor Wiki or Deep Dark Web, which would give you a list of URLs and then you have to explore, and you can go to forum pages that can give you references to stable markets that seem to be relatively authentic, or you could just try your luck. So, if you want to buy an Uzi, some of the Tor Wikis are organized thematically, like this would be the list for guns and you click on one of those, but you’re trusting whoever does the curation of that site to actually put gun-related material in that category. It could be child-abuse images.
HSTtoday: That means you might open yourself into a whole other world of illegal behavior.
Jardine: Exactly. Until you purchase a gun you’re not breaking the law, but viewing child pornography is illegal. So, an individual has to be motivated if they want to buy a gun on the dark web, but the physical steps they have to walk through are not that challenging.
HSToday: What are the implications of invite-only sites on the dark web?
Jardine: If you’re a vendor, the market sites that you are using might have public and private listings, but in order to get your product out there you need to go somewhere public, and so this extra barrier of authentication for a lot of things that are market-driven probably isn’t going to pop up. Where we do see these layers of authentication and invites mattering more is with child abuse and sex trafficking sites. Because of the illegality of it all and the non-monetary nature of it, you see the operators of these forums, apparently, asking users to purchase entry into it. And so, you end up with a situation where it becomes hard for law enforcement to gain access, because they are a paranoid group and they are using all the barriers of authentication that they can in order to prevent people from casually getting in there.
HSToday: The U.S. State Department is the primary source of funding for the Tor Project. So many negative things have been said about Tor, in particular that it facilitates illegal activities for users who want to evade capture by remaining anonymous. Is the Tor Project a national security threat that is funded by the U.S. government?
Jardine: It’s an interesting question. I don’t know if it would raise to the level of national security threats. It’s definitely a law enforcement problem.
HSToday: Isn’t that just a horse of a different color – the same thing?
Jardine: I guess that depends on where you draw the line on national security.
HSToday: There’s terrorism, child endangerment, human trafficking, drugs, guns, assassinations. U.S. Customs and Border Protection, for instance, considers it a national security threat to have this kind of stuff crossing the border.
Jardine: In those terms, especially on the clearest-cut case of a national security challenge, something like terrorism being facilitated or financed by these technologies, so in that case, yeah. I think that a case could certainly be made for the idea that you effectively have the U.S. government working very hard to counter these national security threats while at the same time funding a technology, one application of which is the facilitation of these national security threats.
HSToday: But the program obviously continues.
Jardine: The State Department sees it as a tool of disruption in autocratic regimes. Let’s say if you’re facilitating free speech, free expression, the protection of human rights, you are going to be undermining autocrats and that’s good for the United States, good for U.S. national security, good for U.S. economics. So, that’s their perspective and that’s their approach and they facilitate a technology, one use of which is those very things. The problem is that it is a dual-use technology. It can also be used for these national security threats, and that’s when it falls under the purview of DHS, ICE, FBI, and all of a sudden on that side of the equation you have the U.S. government actively working against the technology.
HST: What can be done to minimize the worst-offending criminals on the dark web?
Jardine: This is an inherently dynamic space — the players, the technologies, what works, what doesn’t work changes over time. I think there’s a desire, especially with something that challenges national security, causes the abuse of children, facilitates terrorist financing — people want solutions. They want to put a stop to them, rightly so, and the problem is that there is an ability to minimize these negative abuses and, in discreet instances, stop them. So, you can take down specific markets, you can take down specific child-abuse sites, but it turns into — as always happens with criminality within society — a situation arises where one site shuts down and another site and set of vendors takes its place. You’re not going to get rid of these technologies, but you can minimize the destruction that they cause.