Anonymity as a Means of Abusing Privacy

Anonymity as a Means of Abusing Privacy
By Mima Mirkovic | October 20, 2022

It’s spooky season, and what’s spookier than the Dark Web?

Where’d All the Web Go?
Traditional search engines like Google, Yahoo, and Bing make up 4% of the “surface web”… but where’s the remaining 96%???

At the intersection of anonymity and privacy exists the Dark Web, an elusive section of the internet not indexed by web crawlers and home to 3,000 hidden sites. The market share of the dark web is 6%, serving as a secret marketplace notorious for illicit drugs, arms dealing, human trafficking, major fraud, and more.

This brings me to an ethical, head-scratching conundrum that I’ve been mulling over for years: how is any of this legal?

It isn’t, but it is.

When privacy originated in the 14th century, I don’t think it ever expected the internet to exist. The arrival of the internet mutated common definitions of privacy, but the arrival of the Dark Web completely obliterated these definitions because it offered a means through which privacy could be abused: anonymity.

Dark Web Origins

Time for a history lesson!

In the late 1990s, the US Department of Defense developed an encrypted network using “onion routing” to protect sensitive communications between US spies. This network was intended to protect dissidents, whistleblowers, journalists, and advocates for democracy in authoritarian states.

In the early 2000s, a group of computer scientists used onion routing to develop the Tor (“The Onion Router”) Project, a nonprofit software organization whose mission is to “advance human rights and defend your privacy online through free software and open networks”. By simply downloading the Tor browser, anyone – ANYONE – can access the dark web. The Tor browser works to anonymize your location and protect your data from hackers and web trackers.

In short, the Tor browser offers users an unmatched level of security and protects your human right to privacy via anonymity, but not all who lurk in the shadows are saints.

Ethics, Schmethics
Privacy is malleable. Its definition is groundless. As Solove would say, “privacy suffers from an embarrassment of meanings”. Privacy is bound to whichever context it is placed in, which, conjoined with anonymity, invites the opportunity for violation.

Through a critical multi-dimensional analytic lens, privacy suffers from its own internal complexity. In the context of onion routing, the malleable nature of privacy allows for it to be used for harm despite its objectives, justifications, and applications being intended for good:

  • Objective – Provide an encrypted, anonymized network
  • Justification – Privacy is a human right
  • Application – A secure network for individuals to avoid censorship and scrutiny from their authoritarian regimes

From the “good guy” perspective, the Tor Project was created to uphold an entity we value the most. You could even argue that it was an ethical approach to protecting privacy. In fact, the Tor Project upholds the central tenets of The Belmont Report: users are given full autonomy over their own decisions, users are free from obstruction or legal harm, and every user is given access to the same degree of privacy.

On the flip side, the “bad guys” quickly learned that their malicious actions online could be done without trace or consequence. Take these stats for example: 50,000 terrorist groups operate on the dark web, 8.1% of listings on darknet marketplaces are for illicit drugs, and illegal financing takes up around 6.3% of all dark web markets. You can purchase someone’s credit card number for as little as $9 on the dark web – how is any of this respectful, just, or fair?

Think about it this way…

In 2021, a hacker posted 700M LinkedIn records on the dark web, exposing 92% of LinkedIn users. Your data, the one you work hard to protect, was probably (if not almost certainly) exposed in that breach. That means that your phone number, geolocation, and connected social media accounts were posted for sale by hackers on the dark web. The “bad guys” saw an opportunity to exploit your privacy, my privacy, your friends’ privacy, and your family’s privacy in exchange for a profit – yet their actions were permissible under the guise of privacy and anonymity.

Let’s look at this example through the lens of the Belmont Report:

* Respect for Persons – Hacking is clearly detrimental to innocent users of the web, yet hacking is a repeatable offense and difficult to prevent from occurring
* Beneficence – Hackers don’t consider the potential risks that would befall on innocent people, only the benefits they would stand to gain from exposing these accounts
* Justice – 700M records were unfairly exposed, and the repercussions were not evenly distributed nor was there appropriate remediation

There are thousands of more examples (some much more horrifying), where we could apply these frameworks to show how anonymity enables and promotes the abuse of our human right to privacy. The main takeaway is that no, these actions do not reflect a respect for persons approach, they’re not just in nature, and they’re certainly not fair.

Privacy is a fundamental part of our existence and it deserves to be protected – to an extent. The Tor browser originally presented itself as a morally righteous platform for users to evade censorship, but the dark deeds that occur on darknets nowadays defeat the purpose of privacy entirely. With that in mind, the Belmont Report is a wonderful framework for assessing data protection, but I believe it requires some (major) tweaks to encompass more extreme scenarios.

At the end of the day, your privacy is not nearly as protected as the privacy of criminals on the dark web. Criminals are kept safe because privacy is a human right, yet they are permitted to abuse this privacy in a way that exploits innocent people, harms society, and provides a hub for lawbreaking of the highest degree. At the same time, the law enforcement and government agencies that work to uphold privacy are the same ones breaking this human right in order to catch these “bad guys”. If you ever find yourself scouring through the dark web, proceed with caution, because even in the most private of locations, you’re always being watched!

Like I said earlier – an ethical, head-scratching conundrum that I will continue to mull over for years.


[1] Dark Web and Its Impact in Online Anonymity and Privacy: A Critical Analysis and Review
[2] How Much of the Internet is the Dark Web in 2022?
[3] The Truth About The Dark Web – IMF F&D.
[4] Taking on the Dark Web: Law Enforcement Experts ID Investigative Needs | National Institute of Justice