Study explores activity on dark web

Pharmaceuticals represent almost 12 per cent of illegal content on the dark web and 3 per cent of its total content, a study into the hidden parts of the internet has revealed.

Terbium Labs, a dark web data intelligence provider, explored the far corners of the internet to identify the activity taking place, which is generally believed to focus on illegal drug sales, pornography and other fraud and criminal acts because of the anonymity the dark web provides.

Surprisingly, the firm found that the bulk of activity on the dark web – nearly 55 per cent – was in fact legal. Sites included European graphic design firms, Scandinavian political parties and personal blogs about security.

However, Terbium was able to identify the pockets of illicit activity as well.

According to the results, pharmaceuticals – defined as those that a doctor would prescribe including prescription-only medicines that are also used recreationally – make up almost 12 per cent of illegal content on the dark web and 3 per cent of the total content.

"No prescriptions, unlimited refills, and no questions asked. Dark web pharmacies provide unfettered access to prescription medications, recalled over-the-counter drugs, and unregulated supplements," the report said.

Buyers can also access medicines such as "a host of steroids" that have not met US Food and Drug Administration approval, Terbium found.

Furthermore, "unlike recreational drugs, pharmaceutical vendors are more likely to invoke name brands or branded packaging in an effort to add legitimacy to their products, at least in part because pharmaceuticals are more difficult (if not impossible) for vendors to manufacture at home," the report said.

Meanwhile, illicit drugs themselves – that is those defined as non-pharmaceutical substances bought or sold for recreational purposes – dominate the illegal content on the dark web. They constitute 44.5 per cent of all illegal content and 12 per cent of total content.

Terbium also discovered that 6.5 per cent of all dark web content and 23.8 per cent of the illegal content was home to dark web market places, where vendors sell or advertise a wide variety of illicit products, such as drugs, fraud, pornography and goods including watches, electronics and counterfeit currency, with the "Amazon of the dark web" being Alphabay.

The report notes that the firm did not observe a single instance of falsified documents and counterfeits on the dark web based on the sample used. It acknowledges that this category does exist on the dark web – and includes fake passports, utility documents, social security numbers, birth certificates, and drivers' licences – but said it does not appear frequently.

The research was based on hard data and statistical analysis, where the firm reviewed a sample of 400 random URLs from a single day by using Terbium's dark web crawler, which continuously scours the dark web adding billions of new records to its database each day. Instead of using human-curated lists, the firm was able to minimise selection bias and provided a more representative picture of the types of content found on the dark web, the firm said. However, it noted there were also limitations to the methodology and the data should be considered with some scepticism.

"Conducting research on the dark web is a difficult task because the boundaries between categories are unclear," said Clare Gollnick, chief data scientist at Terbium. "We put significant effort into making sure this study was based on a representative, random sample of the dark web. We believe the end result is a fair and comprehensive assessment of dark web activity, with clear acknowledgement of the limitations involved in both dark web data specifically and broader limitations of data generally."

The full report can be downloaded from

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