Despite significant attempts by large tech corporations and governments to limit it, child sexual abuse content is widely available online. And, according to sources, it has only gotten worse during the COVID-19 pandemic.
This data is typically hosted on the “darknet,” an anonymous section of the internet where criminals can disseminate it without fear of prosecution. Currently, there are a few platforms that provide anonymous internet access, including i2p, FreeNet, and Tor.
Tor is by far the largest and poses the most difficult problem. The open-source network and browser protects users’ privacy by encrypting their data and preventing internet service providers from tracking them.
Online privacy supporters, notably Edward Snowden, have argued that such platforms safeguard free expression, free thought, and civil rights. They do, however, have a dark side.
Tor’s depraved underworld
The Tor Project was created by the US Navy to protect online intelligence communications before its code was made public in 2002. Tor Project developers have highlighted the possibility of misusing the service, which, when combined with technology such as untraceable bitcoin, can aid in the concealment of criminals.
Tor is a network that exists “on top” of the internet and combines two technologies. The onion service software is the first. These are the websites, often known as “onion services,” that are hosted on the Tor network. These sites require an onion address, and the physical locations of their servers are hidden from users.
The second option is Tor’s privacy-enhancing browser. It allows users to surf the web anonymously by concealing their identity and location. The Tor browser is required to access onion services, but it can also be used to browse the “surface” internet.
It is simple to connect to the Tor network. While search engine possibilities are restricted (there is no Google), finding onion services is also simple. To mention a few, the BBC, New York Times, ProPublica, Facebook, the CIA, and Pornhub all have a confirmed presence on Tor.
Service dictionaries, such as “The Hidden Wiki,” include network addresses, allowing users to find alternative (sometimes illegal) services.
Child sex abuse substantial and abuse porn is predominant
The number of onion services operating on the Tor network is unknown, however the Tor Project estimates that there are approximately 170,000 active addresses. The network’s architecture provides for partial monitoring of network traffic as well as a summary of which services are visited. Child sex abuse material is frequent among the services accessed.
According to one survey, only 2% (52,000) of the estimated 2.6 million daily Tor network users accessed onion services. This shows that the majority of users connect to the network to maintain their online anonymity rather than to use anonymous onion services.
However, based on a single data grab, the same study discovered that around 80% of traffic to onion services was directed to services that did offer unlawful porn, abuse photos, and/or child sex abuse material.
Another study estimated that 53.4 percent of the approximately 170,000 active onion domains carried legal content, implying that 46.6 percent of services had content that was either unlawful or in the grey area.
Although frauds account for a large share of these services, cryptocurrency services, drug sales, malware, firearms, stolen credentials, counterfeit products, and child sex abuse material are also available in this dark corner of the internet.
It is estimated that only around 7.5 percent of the child sex abuse content on the Tor network being sold for a profit. Because the vast majority of persons participating aren’t in it for the money, the majority of this material is just transferred. Having said that, some providers have begun collecting fees for content.
Following massive cross-jurisdictional law enforcement operations, several high-profile onion services containing child sex abuse content, including The Love Zone website in 2014, PlaypEn in 2015, and Child’s Play in 2017, were shut down.
In May, the unlawful website Boystown was taken down as a result of a recent effort led by German police and involving others like as the Australian Federal Police, Europol, and the FBI.
However, for over a decade, one of the largest child sex abuse material forums on the internet (not just Tor) has eluded law enforcement (and activist) takedown attempts. It had 508,721 registered users as of last month. And it has housed over a million images and videos of child sex abuse material and abuse porn since 2013.
The paedophile (pre-pubescent kid eroticization), hebephile (pubescent child eroticization), and ephebophile (adolescents) communities were among the early adopters of Tor’s anonymous discussion forums. Members of the forum share media, support one another, and provide suggestions on how to evade police detection and scams that target them.
Law enforcement faces significant hurdles in prosecuting persons who create and/or dole out child sex abuse material online. This type of criminal action frequently occurs in many jurisdictions, making detection and prosecution challenging.
Undercover operations and cutting-edge web investigative tactics are required. One example is targeted “hacks” that provide law enforcement with back-door access to sites or forums that hold child sex abuse content.
Cybercrime and transnational organised crime treaties that handle child sex abuse material and the trafficking of women and children help such operations.
Because many onion services are volatile, focusing on onion directories and forums may aid in harm reduction. Little is known about Tor’s child sex abuse content forums or the extent to which they affect onion services that host this material.
In addition to collaborating to avoid detection, forum participants can share information about police activity, rate onion service vendors, discuss websites, and reveal scams targeting them.
Outsiders monitoring forums can lead to concrete interventions, such as successful profiling of active criminals. Some authorities have investigated the use of undercover law enforcement officials, civil society, or non-governmental organisation (NGO) experts to promote self-regulation among these groups.
While there hasn’t been much research on this, rehabilitated or recovering offenders can also offer advice to others. Some sub-forums aim to educate, encourage treatment, and limit harm, typically by focusing on the legal and health issues related with ingesting child sex abuse material, as well as methods to manage urges and avoid triggers.
Other illegal services also play a role. For example, child sex abuse information that infiltrates onion services specialised to drug, malware, or other unlawful transactions is usually prohibited.