Some people use Tor to anonymize and obscure their activities online—to access social media, blocked content, or other internet websites without revealing their true location. Others use Tor to access content on the so-called dark web, which isn't accessible to users outside of Tor.
The balance between these two use cases has never been clear. But according to preliminary data, most of Tor's traffic might not actually be destined for the dark web at all.
According to a blog post written by Tor developer George Kadianakis this week, the team has developed way to glean more statistics about how the service is used, without encroaching on the privacy of its users.
"We've been working on methods to improve our calculations, but with our current methodology, we estimate that about 30,000 hidden services announce themselves to the Tor network every day, using about 5 terabytes of data daily," Kadianakis wrote. "We also found that hidden service traffic is about 3.4 percent of total Tor traffic, which means that, at least according to our early calculations, 96.6 percent of Tor traffic is *not* hidden services."
In other words, the majority of Tor traffic comes from users that are using the network to browse the public-facing web anonymously, and not by those accessing hidden sites, such as the now-defunct Silk Road.
Though the analytics-gathering code is now a part of Tor's official codebase, only volunteers that operate relays and choose to enable Tor's tracking functionality are supplying data for now. Gathering these statistics does not require data from Tor clients or the hidden services themselves, but rather, analyzes traffic into and out of Tor exit nodes specifically, "from hidden service directories and rendezvous points."
"We are collecting data from just a few volunteer relays which only allow us to see a small portion of hidden service activity," the post reads, between just two and five percent. As a result, the team cautioned that their current numbers are based on extrapolations—noisy ones, at that.
Nevertheless, even as a rough estimate, 30,000 hidden services is still a lot, and that number is only likely to increase. Facebook announced last year that it had made the social network available as a hidden service, a first amongst tech industry titans, while the Tor team has written numerous posts about its desire to improve the development and discovery of hidden services, which receives less attention than work on the Tor service itself.
In the future, its possible that the data gathered by Tor's developers will answer even more interesting questions. For example, the number of of people using hidden services every day, and the number of times users try to visit hidden services that no longer exist.
But in the mean time, "It's worth repeating that the current results are preliminary and should be digested with a grain of salt," Kadianakis wrote.