It's hard to imagine a more sinister use of the internet than child pornography, but one study conducted by the University of Portsmouth in the U.K. shows that a large majority of "dark net" usage is conducted for just such a purpose.
"Dark net" is term used to describe a corner of the internet that the average user knows little about, beyond the fact that it exists. It's a place where the internet can be browsed anonymously, leaving no trail of data behind to show where someone's been and what they've been doing. It provides the perfect conditions for pedophiles to buy, sell, and trade in child pornography.
Using a browser software called Tor, which stands for The Onion Router, anonymous internet browsing has virtually become old hat. The program was originally created for use by the U.S. Navy, but was later made available to anyone and everyone who had access to the world wide web.
According to their website, Tor is "free software and an open network that helps you defend against traffic analysis, a form of network surveillance that threatens personal freedom and privacy, confidential business activities and relationships, and state security."
The premise is noble enough, maybe even commendable, but despite claims that it is meant to be used to "help you defend against traffic analysis, a form of network surveillance that threatens personal freedom and privacy, confidential business activities and relationships, and state security," Tor is also being used to mask the child pornography trade, and results are in as to just how much.
The study through the University of Portsmouth, lead by researcher Dr. Gareth Owen, was conducted over the course of six months, and was originally meant to shed light on what kinds of sites were the most popular on Tor. When the study first began, "dark net" was a seen in a positive light, as many privacy advocates believe an individual's use of the internet is no one's business but their own. As the results began to filter in, however, something else entirely began to emerge. Child pornography sites accounted for nearly 83 percent of all traffic tracked via the 40 "relay" computers and web-crawling software the research group set up.
"Before we did this study, it was certainly my view that the 'dark net' is a good thing," says Owen. "But it's hampering the rights of children and creating a place where pedophiles can act with impunity."
While child pornography sites account for only 2 percent of the 45,000 hidden services sites available on Tor, four out of five visits tracked by the research group were to these websites. These findings came as a "huge shock" to Owen and his team, and he presented his findings to the Chaos Computer Congress in Hamburg, Germany, on Tuesday.
Dr. Owen did caution his audience that while the data was staggering, some of the information compiled could have skewed the results. It is nearly impossible to determine how many of those visits to the child pornography sites were made by individuals and how many might have been done by machines used by hacker groups to take the sites offline. Web-crawlers are also used by law enforcement and anti-abuse groups to track traffic to these site and can account for some of the visits counted in results.
"It's not as quite as straightforward as it looks," Owen stated. "It might look like there are lots of people visiting these sites but it is difficult to conclude that from this information."
Regardless of how many visits may have come from innocuous sources, child pornography sites are still available on these services, and that is something that needs to be addressed. Pedophilia is a terrible and disturbing side to humanity, and isn't going away; stories of new cases arise almost daily. It raises questions such as just how important is it that our use of the internet remain private if pedophiles are allowed to operate anonymously? What is more crucial to our society than the protection of our children?
[Image courtesy of Exclusive-Networks]