Eric Jardine, a visiting professor at Virginia Tech, speaks at a Dark Web forum at the U.S. Capitol on May 17, 2018. (James Cullum/HSToday)

Is Tor Doing More Harm Than Good? Experts Weigh Costs of Dark Web

Looking for something illicit? Chances are you’ll find what you’re looking for on the dark web — the black market of the internet where anonymous vendors sell drugs and weapons, arrange assassinations, engage in human trafficking and conduct other activities that frustrate law enforcement to no end.

“This is an inherently dynamic space — the players, the technologies, what works, what doesn’t work changes over time,” Eric Jardine, a visiting professor at Virginia Tech, said at a dark web forum at the U.S. Capitol on Thursday. “You’re not going to get rid of these technologies, but you can minimize the destruction that they cause.”

The discussion, which was hosted by Virginia Tech, preceded Friday’s full-day conference “Understanding the Dark Web and Its Implications for Policy” at the school’s Executive Briefing Center in Arlington, Va.

The Tor Project, for instance, is a largely U.S.-funded anonymous Internet browser designed by the Naval Research Institute to protect journalists, human-rights activists and freedom fighters from detection in countries with authoritarian regimes. But Tor, which launched in 2002, has been criticized for also shielding drug sellers and buyers, terrorist groups, child pornographers, gun runners and other nefarious individuals around the globe. The browser has also received a boost in popularity with endorsements from NSA leaker Edward Snowden and Wikileaks editor Julian Assange as an effective means of transferring secret information.

“It’s a give and take. You can’t get some of the good things without some of the bad,” said Dr. Aaron Brantly, an assistant professor of political science at Virginia Tech, who in 2016 as a cyber fellow at the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point walked then-Defense Secretary Ashton Carter through the dark web by purchasing a number of illegal documents.

“We have clearly funded a platform that offers an enormous amount of potential… I’ve seen it used by human rights activists as well, and I’ve seen when it hasn’t worked and they’ve been arrested and thrown in jail indefinitely,” Brantly said. “But I’ve also seen the flip side of it where it’s been used for extremely deleterious purposes, including terrorism, child pornography, drugs and others.”

The Tor Project remains largely funded by the U.S. State Department, the National Science Foundation and “tens of thousands of personal donations from individuals like you.”

“It’s becoming a place where certain classes of criminals can act with impunity,” said Gareth Owenson, a senior lecturer in the School of Computing at the University of Portsmouth. “At the moment, the U.S. government funds Tor because it believes it is a force for good, that it is promoting human rights in other countries. My view, having studied it for almost five years now, is that overwhelmingly the harm outweighs the good.”

In 2014, Owenson released a study finding that 80 percent of sites on the Tor dark web were devoted to child pornography. He said that the figure is now 40 percent on any given day.

Dark web users use Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies that are revolutionizing banking while making it more difficult to track money.

“So, we invent a lot of technologies and then we just let them loose on the world and society largely decides on how it is going to evolve, and it’s sometimes evolving in ways we don’t anticipate,” said Kathleen Moore, an intelligence analysis professor at James Madison University, adding that most universities are not preparing students by adequately teaching them about the dark web.

“So, depending on what it is that we’re looking at, if we’re looking at cryptocurrency I involve business and finance students. If we are looking at law enforcement issues, obviously I bring in criminal justice students,” she said. “We have to start teaching students and training them how to analyze in context. Too often we are waiting until they graduate and they are learning these skills on the job, and then is too late. That is not the place to be learning how to do this. We need to get ahead of the curve and stop being behind it.”

Read HSToday’s one-on-one interviews with Eric Jardine and Gareth Owenson

Multimedia journalist James Cullum is Managing Editor of Homeland Security Today's Federal Pages. He has reported for over a decade to newspapers, magazines and websites in the D.C. metro area. He excels at finding order in chaotic environments, from slave liberations in South Sudan to the halls of the power in Washington, D.C.

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