How the dark web’s biggest platform distributes child pornography


Child sexual abuse material is rampant online, despite considerable efforts of big tech companies and governments to curb it. And according to reports, he only became More widespread during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Much of this material is hosted on the anonymous part of the Internet – the “darknet” – where authors can share it with little fear of prosecution. There are currently a few platforms offering anonymous internet access, including i2p, FreeNet and Tor.

Tor is by far the biggest and presents the biggest conundrum. The network and open source browser ensure users’ anonymity by encrypting their information and allowing them to escape tracking by Internet service providers.

Online privacy advocates including Edward Snowden have championed the benefits of such platforms, claiming that they protect freedom of speech, freedom of thought and civil rights. But they also have a dark side.

The evil underworld of Tor

The Tor Project was originally developed by the US Navy to protect online intelligence communications, before its code was made public in 2002. The developers of Project Tor recognized the potential for abuse of the service which, when combined with technologies such as cryptocurrency not found, can help hide criminals.

Tor is a superimposed network that exists “on top” of the Internet and merges two technologies. The first is the onion service software. These are the websites, or “onion services,” hosted on the Tor network. These sites require an onion address and the physical locations of their servers are hidden from users.

The second is Tor’s privacy-enhancing browser. It allows users to browse the internet anonymously by hiding their identity and location. While the Tor browser is required to access onion services, it can also be used to browse the “surface” Internet.

Accessing the Tor network is simple. And while the search engine options are limited (there is no Google), discovering onion services is also straightforward. The BBC, New York Times, ProPublica, Facebook, CIA, and Pornhub all have verified presence on Tor, to name a few.

Service dictionaries such as “The Hidden Wiki” list addresses on the network, allowing users to discover other (often illegal) services.

The main page of the Hidden Wiki. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Child pornography and abusive pornography are widespread

The number of active onion services on the Tor network is unknown, although the Tor project estimates around 170,000 active addresses. The network architecture allows partial monitoring of network traffic and a summary of the services visited. Among the services visited, child pornography material is common.

Of valued 2.6 million users who use the Tor network daily, a study reported that only 2% (52,000) of users accessed onion services. This suggests that most of the users are accessing the network for maintain their privacy online, rather than using anonymous onion services.

That said, the same study found from a single data capture that around 80% of traffic to onion services was directed to services that offered illegal pornography, images of abuse and / or child pornography material.

Another to study estimated that 53.4% ​​of the approximately 170,000 active domains contained legal content, suggesting that 46.6% of the services had content that was either illegal or in a gray area.

While scams make up a significant proportion of these services, cryptocurrency services, drug transactions, malware, weapons, stolen IDs, counterfeit goods, and child pornography material also feature in this dark part of the story. Internet.

Only around 7.5% of child pornography material on the Tor network is estimated at sold at a profit. The majority of people involved don’t do it for money, so most of this material is just being traded. That said, some services have started charge a fee for the content.

Several leading onion services hosting child pornography material have been to close as a result of extensive interjurisdictional law enforcement operations, including The Love Zone website in 2014, PlaypEn in 2015 and Child’s Play in 2017.

A recent effort led by German police and involving others, including Australian Federal Police, Europol and the FBI, resulted in the shutdown of the illegal website. Boystown in May.

But one of the largest forums for child sexual abuse material on the internet (not just Tor) has eluded law enforcement (and activist) withdrawal attempts for a decade. As of last month, it had 508,721 registered users. And since 2013, it has hosted over a million photos and videos of child pornography and abusive pornography.

The pedophile (eroticization of prepubescent children), hebephiles (pubescent children) and ephébophiles (adolescents) communities are among the first to adopt anonymous discussion forums on Tor. Forum members distribute media, support each other and exchange advice on how to avoid police detection and scams that target them.

The WeProtect Alliance‘s 2019 Global Threat Assessment Report estimated that there were over 2.88 million users on ten forums dedicated to the interests of pedophilia and paraphilia operating through onion services.


There are enormous challenges for law enforcement agencies attempting to prosecute those who produce and / or distribute child pornography online. Such criminal activity typically falls under multiple jurisdictions, making detection and prosecution difficult.

Undercover operations and new online investigative techniques are essential. One example is that of targeted “hacks” which give law enforcement officials back door access to sites or forums hosting child pornography.

Such operations are facilitated by cybercriminality and transnational organized crime treaties dealing with child pornography and trafficking in women and children.

Given the volatile nature of many onion services, focusing on onion directories and forums can help reduce harm. Little is known about the child pornography forums on Tor, or the extent to which they influence the onion services hosting this material.

Besides coordinating to avoid detection, forum users can also share information about police activity, rate onion service providers, share sites, and expose scams that target them.

Oversight of forums by outsiders can lead to concrete interventions, such as the successful profiling of active offenders. Some agencies have explored the use of undercover law enforcement officers, civil society, or NGO experts (such as those from the WeProtect Global Alliance Where ECPAT International) to promote self-regulation within these groups.

While there is a paucity of research on this, reformed or recovering offenders can also provide advice to others. Some sub-forums seek to provide education, encourage treatment, and reduce harm – typically focusing on the legal and health issues associated with the consumption of child pornography, and on ways to control urges and sexual abuse. avoid stimuli.

Other contraband services also play a role. For example, onion services dedicated to drugs, malware, or other illicit trafficking generally prohibit child pornography that creeps in.

Why does the Tor network allow such heinous material to be maintained, despite considerable opposition, sometimes even from those in these groups? Those who represent Tor have surely read complaints in the media, otherwise survivor reports on child pornography.

This article from Roderic Broadhurst, Professor emeritus, Australian National University and Matthieu Boule, Laboratory Coordinator at the Australian National University Cybercrime Observatory, Australian National University, is reissued from The conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read it original article.


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