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Eric Jardine

Eric Jardine, presenting on the Dark Web at a congressional staffer briefing on Capitol Hill in May 2018

Eric Jardine: Shedding Light on the Dark Web

The Dark Web, perceived as being a mysterious and rather sinister part of the Internet, is made up of websites that cannot be found by traditional search engines and that can only be accessed by specific browsers such as Tor. It is increasingly being used to conduct anonymous online activities, keeping these activities, which may be illegal, hidden from governments or private internet companies. In the United States alone, roughly 400,000 browser clients (not necessarily unique people) use the Tor network each day.

This enigmatic and secretive part of the Internet is the primary focus of Eric Jardine’s research interests, which also include cybersecurity and digital trust. Jardine, an assistant professor of political science in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, and a senior fellow with the Centre for International Governance Innovation, has been studying the Dark Web since 2014 and has developed a course for undergraduate students specifically focused on the topic.

“I am really interested in the ‘spillover’ effect of transactions that take place on the Dark Web,” Jardine explained. “For example, does media coverage of drug take downs on the Dark Web generate more interest in the Dark Web, or does the publicity serve as a deterrent?”

To help answer this question, Jardine is using funding from the Institute for Society, Culture and Environment (ISCE) to conduct a study of two dozen high profile drug busts involving the Dark Web. He is coding the stories for signals embedded within them to see if there is a shift in the balance of coverage and trends related to deterrence or increased interest in the Dark web. This study will help him tease out the often unintended consequences of law enforcement policing efforts and associated media coverage.

“State and federal law enforcement agencies hope that coverage of these take downs will serve as a deterrent to drug dealers, demonstrating that even in the highly anonymous environment of the Dark Web, they are onto criminals; however, these take downs may be having the opposite effect of making the Dark Web seem more ‘exotic.’” Jardine noted.

Even when law enforcement successfully shuts down an illegal drug website, the dealers often just move on and create a new one. In this way, the Dark Web provides a more efficient system for illegal activity than selling drugs on the neighborhood street corner.

Jardine has a related line of research on the spillover effects investigating whether changes in illegal activity on the Dark Web results in fluctuations in real world crime at the local level.

“Many municipalities are not well resourced to deal with crime in the first place. Now it’s possible that they are seeing an increase in their own crime rates due to what’s taking place on the Dark Web when these drug sites are shut down.”

Beginning in spring 2020, Jardine started building a unique dataset to investigate if spill overs from Dark Web crimes show up in local municipal crime statistics, particularly for violent crimes and drug offenses.

“Rapid diffusion of novel drugs is one potential effect of a technology that leverages the postal system to ship drugs to a person’s house. What this means in practice is that local law enforcement, especially outside of the big cities, can be caught off guard and unprepared by new trends in drugs and crime that originate on the Dark Web and then spill over onto main street.”

If changes in drug markets on the Dark Web influence crime at the local level, it can have serious implications for local law enforcement and may call for increased partnerships at the local, state and national level.

Jardine is also interested in examining people’s attitudes related to punishment for cyber criminals. “Based on the outcomes in some high-profile cases, there may be a punishment ‘top up’ effect,” Jardine said. These national stories have prompted Jardine to wonder if people favor harsher sentences for criminals convicted of crimes on the Dark Web compared to those convicted in more traditional settings in local communities.

Although illegal drug use is not to be condoned in either setting, research points towards a subculture of more responsible drug use and availability of more “pure” drugs on the Dark Web according to Jardine. These factors, along with the absence of gang violence that often occurs with drug deals on the streets, may make these transactions somewhat “safer.” Yet, Dark Web criminals such as Ross Ulbricht, known as Dread Pirate Roberts, who was famous for money laundering, computer hacking, identity theft and selling narcotics, received a double life sentence plus 40 years in prison without the possibility of parole for operating the Silk Road market website. Harsh sentences, like this one for the originator of the first drug cryptomarkets, are now becoming a perpetual feature of the Dark Web.

“We really don’t know much about people’s attitudes towards punishment on the Dark Web compared to other settings,” Jardine noted. To learn more about these attitudes, Jardine is conducting a series of experiments to see how people view Dark Web crime.

“The goal is for these studies to help us learn if people support more severe punishments for criminals on the Dark Web because they perceive it to be more mysterious and threatening,” said Jardine.

Jardine is not only interested in learning about spillover effects and attitudes towards the Dark Web but also the policy implications resulting from Dark Web activity. For example, if media coverage of Dark Web drug busts leads to greater interest in the Dark Web, it may be necessary to rethink how journalists frame their news stories. Or, if people’s attitudes towards sentencing for cyber criminals tend to result in harsher punishments, there are serious social and financial implications for local and state criminal justice systems.

In 2018, Jardine organized a conference in Arlington, Virginia that brought together experts from disciplines such as computer science, political science, sociology and the information sciences as well as industry and government to foster a better understanding of these policy implications. Preceding the conference, the researchers held a congressional staffer briefing. The briefing and conference, partially supported by ISCE, gave participants the opportunity to present their latest research on Dark Web topics such as cryptocurrencies and bitcoin, online extremism and anonymous online markets, as well as foster partnerships for future collaboration.

Jardine has also integrated his research and teaching interests in a class he developed for undergraduate students called “Dark Web and Threat Analytics,” which he offers each spring. The class exposes students to the Dark Web in practical and hands-on ways, so that they are more equipped to understand and address cybersecurity risks and implement precautionary measures.

“The Dark Web is a great training testbed for students. The system is hugely dynamic, rife with lies, and often dual purpose. All these features imply that to study the Dark Web is to learn to think in terms of movement, to assess everything for credibility, and to recognize inherent complexity. Even if many of the students who take the class never go on to think about the Dark Web again, they still benefit from learning how to think with the Dark Web as a test case.”

Given the ubiquitous nature of the Internet and the ways in which it can be used, both for good and for bad, Jardine is demystifying the Dark Web and helping other researchers as well as students better understand how it works and its impact on our society and individual lives.