In early February it was revealed that the biggest host of Dark Web sites, Freedom Hosting II, was hacked and taken offline by anonymous hackers. At the time, it was estimated they served around 15 to 20% of all sites on the Dark Web. The actual impact of the takedown was much greater, it seems.
The number of hidden services on the Dark Web has shrunken dramatically this year. Anonymity and privacy researcher Sarah Jamie Lewis revealed this week that Onion Scan, a Dark Web investigation tool she’s been instrumental in developing, detected just 4,400 active hidden services in the wake of the FHII breach. At the time, Onion Scan was probing a pool of around 30,000.
That’s a massive percentage of services that have gone silent, but it doesn’t mean that the Dark Web is now 85% smaller than it once was. Lewis tweeted that “the Dark Web is definitely much smaller after FHII,” adding that “we can quantify it up to a point.” Her best guess is somewhere in the neighborhood of 30%. There’s no easy way to come up with a firm number since, by their very nature, services on the Dark Web are hidden.
It’s clear, however, that more than just FHII sites were impacted. The reason, Lewis believes, is that “other hosting providers[…]were hosting some infrastructure on top of Freedom Hosting II.” As the links to those other providers were severed, the hidden services they were hosting started to drop offline, too.
Many have expressed concerns over this dramatic drop. Though the majority of the headlines you read about the Dark Web involve anonymous marketplaces and sales of narcotics, firearms, or shady lifetime Internet access at dirt-cheap prices, that’s only a small part of what takes place there.
The Dark Web provides a safe online space for journalists, activists, victims of violent crimes, and many others to communicate. It facilitates access to information in nations where citizens can only access a heavily-censored version of the Internet. There’s a definite need to ensure that the failure of one provider doesn’t wipe out access to other important hidden services — like SIGAINT, once a trusted and widely-used secure email service on the Tor network that has now been offline for months.