How do you investigate a network that emphasizes anonymity and is designed to foil not only casual users but detectives as well?

“Sometimes you have to get creative,” says Eric Jardine, an assistant professor of political science at Virginia Tech who investigates the uses and consequences of the dark web.

A subset of the deep web, which can be neither found by traditional search engines nor visited with standard browsers, the dark web is a collection of websites that use encryption tools to hide their identity.

“We’ve long known — really, ever since Plato wrote about the myth of the Ring of Gyges, which enabled its owner to become invisible at will — that when people are rendered anonymous and their actions are untethered from their identity, their moral compass can break,” Jardine says. “And that’s certainly what we see with the dark web.”

Jardine notes that, when conducting research on the dark web, you need to find innovative ways to expand your investigations wherever possible. You should also partner with those who have complementary skills to try to investigate issues that cross disciplines.

For instance, Jardine looked at whether the availability of illegal drugs on the dark web had spilled into narcotic usage and arrests on a state level in the United States. To accomplish that, he and fellow researchers used a big-data approach to gather information about people’s interest in the dark web and then correlated those data with state drug use and arrest statistics.

“We found that the dark web drives up drug-usage rates and drives down drug-arrest rates,” Jardine says. “And that suggests a more fundamental problem, which is that policing isn’t really keeping up with the shifts in how users obtain drugs. But investigators are still doing an amazing job under challenging circumstances,” including a lack of resources, difficulty retaining people with the detective’s intuition and necessary cyber skills, as well as murky jurisdictional laws.

Jardine’s research focuses on the uses and abuses of anonymity-granting technologies and encryption, as well as the inherent politics of the public-policy dilemmas surrounding both. He also looks at trends in cybercrime and how people’s use of email and other digital technologies affects cybersecurity.

“Because of the technologies involved,” Jardine says, “it’s not easy to find out in a systematic way what’s happening and where the legal lines are drawn.”

According to Jardine, research has found that about half of dark-web content is legal under U.S. laws. His own research shows that what he considers to be the best need for the dark web — anonymity to express oneself safely — increases under repressive regimes.

“There’s a case to be made for these technologies,” he says, “as being fundamental to privacy and free expression.”

The other half of dark-web content consists of sites that sell malware, drugs, guns, or worse. One landmark study found that 2 percent of dark-web sites involve child-abuse images, and those sites draw some 80 percent of dark-web traffic.

“How do you manage all this complexity in a way that’s feasible, doesn’t break the system for people in repressive regimes who need anonymity, and yet doesn’t let the harms run rampant and unchecked,” asks Jardine, who notes that shutting down the dark web would be difficult, if not impossible.

Jardine’s quest to manage that complexity has led to collaborations around the world. For example, he is working with British computer scientist Gareth Owenson on such policy questions as whether the distribution of harms and benefits from the dark web vary in any systematic way. He is also authoring a paper with former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff on thorny national and international jurisdictional issues.

In addition, Jardine has developed a course that introduces Virginia Tech students to navigating and measuring content in a largely unmonitored corner of the internet. The course also explores the policy implications of the dark web, examining how threats emerge and how law enforcement attempts to police this murky domain.

The field interests Jardine in part because it can be investigated through so many lenses, including political, economic, criminological, international relations, public health, and social frames.

“There’s something fascinating about the whole mix,” he says. “You have your positive uses, your negative abuses. Technology is involved, as are fundamental and time-immemorial questions about anonymity and identity. The tendrils that come off dark web research touch so many different areas.

“It’s yet to be boring.”

Written by Richard Lovegrove. This article originally appeared in the 2018–19 issue of Illumination, the annual magazine of the Virginia Tech College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences.