Researchers: Despite Abuse, Darknets Should be Legal

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Over half of the websites on the Tor darknet host illicit material, according to researchers Daniel Moore and Thomas Rid of King’s College London. Released on Monday, Cryptopolitik and the Darknet suggests that pragmatic decision-making by liberal democracies is necessary to “save crypto from itself” and preserve encryption against the opposing pull of utopian idealists and state surveillance organizations. Moore and Rid dub the necessary approach “cryptopolitik.”

The researchers discuss encryption as a political and moral issue, saying “(e)ncryption policy is becoming a crucial test of the values of liberal democracy in the twenty-first century.” They go on to specifically examine Tor, as “one of the most sophisticated and controversial encryption platforms today.”

Moore and Rid scraped over 5,000 live websites from Tor and were able to classify the content of over 2,723 with a Python-based web crawler. They found that 1,547 (57 percent) of them hosted illicit material, while 1,021 (37 percent) did not, with the further 6 percent remaining of uncertain legality even after their content was assessed. The most common illegal activity they found represented on the darknet was drug sales (16 percent), while they note Islamic extremism is nearly absent.

Read more: Tor Network Investigates Attack That May Have Unmasked Anonymous Users

“Darknets are not illegal in free countries and they probably should not be,” the report says. “Yet these widely abused platforms – in sharp contrast to the wider public-key infrastructure – are and should be fair game for the most aggressive intelligence and law-enforcement techniques, as well as for invasive academic research. Indeed, having such clearly cordoned-off, free-fire zones is perhaps even useful for the state, because, conversely, a bad reputation leads to bad security. Either way, Tor’s ugly example should loom large in technology debates. Refusing to confront tough, inevitable political choices is simply irresponsible. The line between utopia and dystopia can be disturbingly thin.”

The report also notes that “hidden services” offered from a site on the darknet, often with a .onion extension, are not visited by most Tor users, with hidden services accounting for only three to 6 percent of all Tor traffic.

While France is the latest legislative battleground over encryption, services like Vitru’s new SDK for end-to-end cloud application encryption continue to come online, and large tech organizations continue to push minimum encryption standards.

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