Recent presidential politics put electronic communications and hacking of information into sharp focus, particularly with the underground WikiLeaks making the headlines every other week. But what many IRBs might not know is that researchers increasingly are turning to the “dark web” for data.

“We think all of the data from the dark web is bad and suspicious, and if you’re working in the dark web then you’re looking at child pornography, but that’s not what this is all about,” says Elizabeth A. Buchanan, PhD, an endowed chair in ethics and acting director of the office of research and sponsored programs at the University of Wisconsin-Stout in Menomonie.

“The dark web enables privacy and anonymity, and we value anonymity in the social-behavioral realm,” she says. “It’s a good time for researchers to be active using data on the dark web.”

What’s good for researchers can be a major challenge for IRBs. “The challenge for IRBs is when we look at where we’re getting data, what are the risks to researchers and the risk to institutions?” Buchanan says.

“Then we think about the whole WikiLeaks concept, and we see risks to individuals,” she adds. “We don’t want to be on the front page of the paper, saying we used leaked data or that our researchers are scrubbing data, because it sounds bad.”

Buchanan speaks about the dark web and research ethics at national conferences, often beginning with giving people definitions, since the term evokes images without offering an understanding of what it really means.

“There are locations on the internet that are not indexed and findable through Google,” Buchanan explains. “They are off the grid, like Silk Road, which is a good example from a few years ago.”

The Silk Road website was an online marketplace for illegal drugs and other items that people could buy using the internet-based currency bitcoin.

“It was amazingly lucrative, resulting in millions of dollars in profits until it was shut down because it involved drug trafficking, illegal banking, and cybercrimes,” Buchanan says. “You could have these truly anonymous purchases and order something that would be packaged to look like a video or game.”

This pushed the limits of the internet and societal norms around privacy and anonymity and safety, she says.

People’s intentions for using the dark web are not all bad, however. “Sometimes it gets conflated with both the dark web and WikiLeaks,” Buchanan says. “Just because you want to be anonymous automatically means you are guilty of something, and that’s just not true.”

Some legitimate reasons people might use the dark web include research and social justice or civil disobedience, for example.

By going to the dark web, social-behavioral researchers can reach populations that are otherwise extremely difficult to find.

“If you want to study illegal behaviors and if you want to study ugly things like child pornography, there are reasons to study these on the dark web,” Buchanan says.

And there are other reasons for using the dark web in research. For instance, one researcher was pregnant and wanted to experience her pregnancy anonymously online, she says.

“It was neat the way she talked about what experiences people can have in a nonpublic internet environment,” Buchanan says. “Also, if you don’t want your identity as a researcher known, or if you’re doing gang research and for your own safety, using [the dark web] is an option.”

One way researchers access the dark web is through a browser called Tor. It is downloaded like any major web browser, but pings from different servers and IP addresses aren’t logged. It’s the way to browse the Internet without being tracked, she explains.

Naturally, IRBs would have a number of questions and concerns about research that involves the dark web, including the following:

Looking at the population or topic being investigated, what is the researcher doing? “Just like we would do with any other protocol, if the protocol involves something that looks at pockets of opioid use in a particular environment, it could have real risks both for the investigator as well as participants who could be identified,” Buchanan says.

“So we’d want to assess it, look at risks and benefits, and make sure the investigator has the qualifications to be engaging in research that could be potentially risky,” she says. “You don’t want to find yourself as a researcher in a space that’s a sting operation, and the FBI is in there while you’re in there.”

It’s a good strategy for researchers or IRBs to get in touch with their local FBI field office before starting a dark web study that involves observing illicit behavior, she suggests.

“The worst thing is if your researchers are messing around and talking with an FBI officer, and neither knows what the other one is doing,” Buchanan says. “There are simple practices you can take to help you into these research studies in a safe way.”

How will a researcher protect himself or herself? IRBs, as well as investigators, need to fully grasp all of the risks of navigating the dark web. They should be fully aware of which risks are individually based, technologically based, and which are related to the research itself, she says.

What are the social benefits of the research? There are a variety of social benefits to research on the dark web, including studies that involve dissidents and civil disobedience.

“Think of political science research these days,” Buchanan says. “It’s very important to look at all of these things.”

Is it research or public health information? Suppose a researcher proposed conducting real-time surveillance of opioid users, Buchanan says.

“Is this research or public health information?” she asks. “Is it even human subjects research if it’s in a completely anonymous setting?”

In big data studies, studies like these probably are not human subjects research because the object is to collect data about people who can never be identified. “There’s a line between human subjects and data subjects, and what does that do to our current regulations?” Buchanan says.

Whether IRBs explore the issues revolving around research in the dark web, it is a topic that likely will not disappear, Buchanan notes.

“It’s becoming more common as people hear about it more because of WikiLeaks,” she explains. “The more we hear about things in the popular press, the more researchers will keep digging and see where this takes them — the dark web is not new.”