When it was established in 2002, The Onion Router (Tor), an open-source platform designed to bypass internet traffic through different nodes in order to hide the real source of the person behind the keyboard, was meant to be a monumental shift in how we work online. It was designed as a beacon of freedom, and a way for people in illiberal countries to find a way to free expression.
But in the near-two decades since then, Tor has become something different.
It’s now a byword for illicit behaviour, and a way to subvert censorship of a different kind. Closely associated with the dark web, Tor has become something more malicious – or has it?
A study by Virginia Tech assistant professor Eric Jardine and colleagues, which claims to be the world’s first significant global analysis of how the platform is used, indicates that things aren’t as clean cut as they may be perceived.
Only a small proportion use it for illegal material
“We found that most Tor users head toward regular web content that could likely be considered benign,” said Jardine, a faculty member in the Department of Political Science. “So even though the Tor anonymity network can be used for some highly malicious purposes, most people on an average day seem to use it more as a hyper-private version of Chrome or Firefox.”
In all, only 6.7% of Tor users worldwide use it for malicious purposes on any given day, according to analysis of the entry nodes into the network.
But those users who did use Tor for nefarious purposes weren’t evenly shared across the planet. A higher proportion were based in liberal democratic countries, rather than in countries lacking freedom, the researchers found.
A challenge for law enforcement
While the proportion of Tor users deploying the technology for bad means is relatively low, the potential harm they can cause is significant. “The results suggest that anonymity-granting technologies, such as Tor, present a clear public policy challenge and include clear political context and geographical components,” the authors wrote in their paper.
“Leaving the Tor network up and free from law enforcement investigation is likely to lead to direct and indirect harms that result from the system being used by those engaged in child exploitation, drug exchange, and the sale of firearms,” the researchers added.
Those kinds of illicit, black market deals have been typical of the kinds of stories that are covered by media outlets when thinking about the dark web. For some absolutists, the solution is a simple one: shut down Tor entirely.
Tor should stay online, researchers say
However, the answer to the issues isn’t as easy as that. “Simply working to shut down Tor would cause harm to dissidents and human rights activists,” the authors wrote, “particularly, our results suggest, in more repressive, less politically free regimes where technological protections are often needed the most.”
While a small but significant minority use the platform for negative reasons, the benefits of Tor outweigh the issues that it raises, particularly for those who struggle to overcome the oppression of the politics in their regimes.
For those who are seeking a way to communicate and speak around the world, Tor can provide a vital lifeline and method to keep in touch, raise awareness of concerns, and make sure their voices are heard.