The dark web is too slow and annoying for terrorists to even bother with, experts say

“This is too complicated.”
“This is too complicated.”
Image: Reuters/Dado Ruvic
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Terrorists are skulking around the dark web, the bit of the internet that can only be accessed by specific software, propagating messages of hate and extremism, right? Not really, according to data gathered by Thomas Rid and Daniel Moore of the Department of War Studies at King’s College London.

“The one thing that was surprising was that there was so little militant, extremist presence. Only a handful of sites,” Rid told Quartz.

The two designed a system to crawl “hidden services” on Tor, the network of computers that obfuscates the identities of those connected to it, to try to categorize the content found on those hidden sites. A Tor hidden-service has an address that ends in .onion, like this one–https://3g2upl4pq6kufc4m.onion–which points to DuckDuckGo’s hidden-service (here’s Facebook’s one). It has to be accessed by the Tor browser, a piece of free software that lets users view hidden services while keeping their identity hidden under multiple layers of encryption. People who run a hidden service can’t be easily identified either.

Here’s what Rid and Moore found:

So why aren’t jihadis taking advantage of running dark web sites? Rid and Moore don’t know for sure, but they guess that it’s for the same reason so few other people publish information on the dark web: It’s just too fiddly. “Hidden services are sometimes slow, and not as stable as you might hope. So ease of use is not as great as it could be. There are better alternatives,” Rid told Quartz.

As a communications platform, a site on the dark web doesn’t do what jihadis need it to do very well. It won’t reach many new people compared to “curious Googling,” as the authors point out, limiting its utility as a propaganda tool. It’s not very good for internal communications either, because it’s slow and requires installing additional software to work on a mobile phone. “So for both propaganda and communications, it’s less useful than some alternatives,” Rid said.

Those alternatives include privacy-preserving mobile chat apps like Telegram, Rid noted. Telegram offers encrypted messaging, a slick, intuitive interface, and a big userbase: it hit 100 million active monthly users in February. Jihadis do, however, use the Tor browser to hide what they’re browsing on the open web from prying eyes, the paper noted.

That doesn’t mean plenty of other groups don’t find the dark web useful.  Hidden sites operating as drug marketplaces remain the most common type of content. More than 60% of the active sites the researchers found offer illicit content of some sort.