Security

The light side of the Dark Web

The Dark Web isn't all bad news. A study by security firm Terbium Labs found that over half of the encrypted internet consists of legal traffic, and instances of hacking and fraud were shockingly low.

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The encrypted internet known as the Dark Web is crawling with creepy criminals intent on swiping and selling data, drugs, and other illicit goods. Accessible only by using a secure browser like Tor, the Dark Web has become notorious for hosting felonious hacker forums and illegal markets like the Silk Road. Yet contrary to its infamous reputation, according to new research from security firm Terbium Labs the Dark Web is not exclusively a haven for reprehensible reprobates.

Terbium Labs Matchlight tool helps companies and organizations locate stolen data by monitoring and indexing Dark Web activity. Akin to a Google Search Alert, Matchlight pings corporate clients with alerts when missing data is found. To the layperson the Dark Web appears opaque, but "it's not as large or as shadowy as you might think," said Emily Wilson, Director of Analysis at Terbium Labs. With the right tools, she explained in an interview with TechRepublic, it's reasonably easy to track criminal and other activity on the encrypted web.

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"Compared to the clearnet, the Dark Web is maybe a few thousand, or few hundred thousand [sites.]," Wilson said. The report found that although criminal activity is omnipresent, 54.5% of Dark Web content is legal traffic posted by tech companies like Facebook, the U.S. State Department and other government organizations, and journalists and activists.

Much of the Dark Web is literally dark, the report said. Nearly 17.7% of the encrypted internet consists of dead websites. 12.3% of illegal Dark Web activity is related to illegal drug trafficking, and another 3.2% is diverted pharmaceutical trafficking. Fraud and hacking each consist of only 1.3% of Dark Web activity. One percent of the Dark Web is exploitation related, and less than one percent of encrypted traffic is linked to extremism, the report said.

The Terbium document enumerated several additional key findings:

  • Anonymity does not mean criminality. A majority of Dark Web activity is legal.
  • Pornography is prominent, but not all of it is illegal. Almost 7% of the total content is extreme, but legal, pornography.
  • Fraud was much lower than anticipated. This is likely due to the prevalence of fraud material on sites that are technically part of the clear web.
  • Extremism in rare. No instances of weapons of mass destruction or human trafficking were observed.
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Image: Terbium Labs

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The Dark Web moves quickly and is not easy to monitor, the company said. In a statement accompanying the Terbium data Chief Data Scientist Clare Gollnick explained that "conducting research on the Dark Web is a difficult task because the boundaries between categories are unclear. We put significant effort into making sure this study was based on a representative, random sample of the Dark Web. She acknowledged that there are "limitations involved in both Dark Web data specifically and broader limitations of data generally."

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About Dan Patterson

Dan is a Senior Writer for TechRepublic. He covers cybersecurity and the intersection of technology, politics and government.

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