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What is Dark web ? Definition, Working, Tools and Protection

The dark web is the hidden collective of internet sites only accessible by a specialized web browser. It is used for keeping internet activity anonymous and private, which can be helpful in both legal and illegal applications. While some use it to evade government censorship, it has also been known to be utilized for highly illegal activity.

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The truth about the dark web is that in addition to offering extreme privacy and protection from the surveillance of authoritarian governments, it facilitates a growing underground marketplace that sophisticated criminals use to traffic drugs, stolen identities, child pornography, and other illicit products and services. And with untraceable cryptocurrency as the primary means of payment, close cooperation between law enforcement, financial institutions, and regulators around the world is required to tighten the screws on nefarious activity.

What is the dark web, deep web, and surface web?

The Internet is sizable with millions of web pages, databases, and servers all run 24 hours a day. But the visible Internet (aka surface web or open web) — sites can be found using search engines like Google and Yahoo, but that is not it. There are several terms surrounding the non-visible Web, but it’s worth knowing how they differ if you’re planning to browse off the beaten path.

The surface web or open web

The open web, or surface web, is the “visible” surface layer. From a statistical standpoint, this collective of websites and data makes up under 5% of the total internet.

All commonly public-facing websites accessed via traditional browsers like Google Chrome, Internet Explorer and Firefox are contained here. Websites are usually labeled with registry operators like “.com” and “.org” and can be easily located with popular search engines.

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Locating surface web websites is possible because search engines can index the web via visible links (a process called “crawling” due to the search engine traveling the web like a spider).

The deep web

The deep web rests below the surface and accounts for approximately 90% of all websites. This hidden web is so large that it’s impossible to discover exactly how many pages or websites are active at any one time. From academic journals to private databases and more illicit content, is out of reach. This deep web also includes the portion that we know as the dark web.

While many news outlets use “deep web” and “dark web” interchangeably, much of the deep portion as a whole is perfectly legal and safe. Some of the largest parts of the deep web include:

  • Databases: both public and privately protected file collections that are not connected to other areas of the web, only to be searched within the database itself.
  • Intranets: internal networks for enterprises, governments, and educational facilities used to communicate and control aspects privately within their organizations.

In case you’re wondering how to access the deep web, chances are you already use it daily. The term “deep web” refers to all web pages that that are unidentifiable by search engines. Deep web sites may be concealed behind passwords or other security walls, while others simply tell search engines to not “crawl” them. Without visible links, these pages are more hidden for various reasons.

On the larger deep web, its “hidden” content is generally cleaner and safer. Everything from blog posts in-review and pending web page redesigns, to the pages you access when you bank online, are part of the deep web. Furthermore, these pose no threat to your computer or safety at large. Most of these pages are kept hidden from the open web to protect user information and privacy, such as:

  • Financial accounts like banking and retirement
  • Email and social messaging accounts
  • Private enterprise databases
  • HIPPA sensitive information like medical documentation
  • Legal files

For some users, portions of the deep web offer the opportunity to bypass local restrictions and access TV or movie services that may not be available in their local areas. Others go somewhat deeper to download pirated music or steal movies that aren’t yet in theaters.

At the end of the web, you’ll find the more hazardous content and activity. Tor websites are located at this far end of the deep web, which is deemed the “dark web” and are only accessible by an anonymous browser. Deep web safety is more relevant to the average internet user than dark web safety, as you could end up in dangerous areas by accident: many portions of the deep web can still be accessed in normal internet browsers. This is how users can travel through enough tangential pathways and end up on a piracy site, a politically radical forum, or viewing disturbingly violent content.

The dark web

The dark web is a part of the internet that isn’t indexed by search engines.

What is Dark web ? Definition, Process and Protection

On the dark web, you can buy credit card numbers, all manner of drugs, guns, counterfeit money, stolen subscription credentials, hacked Netflix accounts, and software that helps you break into other people’s computers. Buy login credentials to a $50,000 Bank of America account, counterfeit $20 bills, prepaid debit cards, or a “lifetime” Netflix premium account. You can hire hackers to attack computers for you. You can buy usernames and passwords.

But not everything is illegal, the dark web also has a legitimate side. For example, you can join a chess club or BlackBook, a social network described as the “the Facebook of Tor.”

What you will find on Dark web?

But the dark web is better known for dark content — meaning, illegal and sometimes disturbing content. For instance, here’s a sample of illegal things you can find on the dark web.

  • Stolen information. When there’s been a data breach, there’s a chance the accessed information — from Social Security numbers to bank card numbers — will end up for sale on the dark web. You can also buy things like log-in credentials, hacked Netflix accounts, and more.
  • Illicit substances. Illegal drugs — and prescription drugs — are peddled on the dark web. You might also find toxic chemicals that can cause other types of damage.
  • Disturbing and dangerous items and services. It can get ugly fast. Things like gore, murderers-for-hire, human trafficking, child pornography, body parts, counterfeit goods, and guns for sale can be found.

In short, you can buy just about anything you can imagine — including things you’d probably be better off not imagining.

Is the dark web safe?

The dark web may be safe in some cases — but not in others.

Here are a few safety issues to consider.

  • Criminal element. There’s a chance you will find websites run by criminals. Beyond selling illegal goods and services, they may seek to exploit you and steal from you.
  • Breaking the law. You can be prosecuted for things. It’s important to behave in an appropriate and legal manner.
  • Suspicious links. If you click on any links, you may be taken to material you might not want to see. It’s also possible that clicking a link or downloading a file could infect your device with malware.
  • Law enforcement. Law enforcement officials operate on the dark web to catch people engaged in criminal activity. Like others , law enforcement can do their work under a cloak of anonymity.

If you decide to venture to the dark web, it’s smart to be selective about the websites you access.

Why the dark web was created?

The history of the dark web is said to begin with the release of Freenet in 2000. Freenet was the thesis project of Ian Clarke, a student at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, who was looking to create “A Distributed Decentralised Information Storage and Retrieval System.” In other words, he was trying to create a way to anonymously communicate, exchange files, and interact online. 

In 2002, the dark web grew significantly when researchers supported by the US Naval Research Laboratory built and released the Tor network. In the early 2000s, the internet was still young and easy to surveil — it was relatively easy to track anyone online and fairly difficult to remain anonymous. The Tor network was created to open up safe communication channels for dissidents living in countries with oppressive governments and for American intelligence operatives living around the world. 

Later, the code base underlying Tor was released under a free license, and a nonprofit called The Tor Project was formed. In 2008, the Tor Browser was released, which let less tech-savvy people navigate the dark web more easily. Dark web domains tend to be inconsistent — new ones pop up and others disappear — which is unsurprising given the questionable legality of some of their offerings. The Tor Project says that of the 2 million people using Tor every day, only 1.5% are accessing hidden, or dark, websites. Apparently, more people use Tor to privately access normal parts of the internet rather than the dark web. Recorded Future also notes that 86% of dark websites are in English, followed by German and Russian, which offers some insight into the anonymous user base.

Is the dark web illegal?

There are people and things on the dark web that you’ll want to avoid. Here are a few of them:

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  • Viruses. Some websites could infect your devices with viruses, and there are a lot of different types of viruses to watch out for. Remember to never download anything from websites you don’t trust.
  • Hackers. You can find hacker forums on the dark web. You can hire computer hackers to do illegal activities. Not surprisingly, a lot of these people would be willing to hack your devices.
  • Webcam hijacking. A website on the dark web may try to get a remote administration tool — also known as a “RAT” — onto your device. That can lead to someone hijacking your webcam — essentially, letting them see what you’re up to through your device’s camera lens. It’s a smart practice to cover your webcam with a piece of paper or tape if you’re not using it.

How to access the dark web

The dark web isn’t that difficult to access. First, you’ll need to download the Tor Browser. From there, you can type in any URL you’d like to visit. It should be noted that though they both provide encryption, a VPN and Tor are not the same things.

Dark web browsing is not as simple as regular web surfing, and there are some tools you can use to chart your journey. The Hidden Wiki is a kind of directory of the dark web, providing links to onion domains and short descriptions of what you can find there. But some of these links may be broken or lead you to shady websites offering illegal goods and services.

Dark web search engines

DuckDuckGo is an example of a search engine that exists on the surface net but that also has an onion version for the dark web. Some dark web search engines require payment to use and target drug-related sites specifically. Onionland, another dark web search engine, lets you search through keywords. Results here show up simply as a list of URLs, without any signposts or other information to help searchers navigate.

How to safely browse the deep web and dark web ?

If you browse the deep web — even if it’s just to check out your dental bill — it’s a good idea to equip your device with trusted security software and keep it up to date. We already talked about using a VPN on public networks.

Here are a few tips and tools to help stay safe when using Tor and other browsers. There’s a lot more to consider, but this should give you an idea of some of the issues — good and bad — to consider.

  • Tor is known for providing online anonymity, so it can be effective for sharing sensitive information with family or reporting corruption or abuse.
  • Keep Tor and Tor applications updated. Make sure your device’s operating system is also up to date.

Don’t use your regular email on websites when using Tor. While Tor is designed with anonymity in mind, providing your regular email address could expose your identity.

Keep in mind that dark web content may be illegal.

Anytime you’re in the company of illegal drugs, illegal content, and other sordid online activities, you could risk landing in legal trouble.

A mistaken keystroke or simple curiosity might not be a reliable defense. Here are two examples of dark web content and activities that would raise legal concerns.

  • Sharing pictures and videos of child pornography. In one FBI arrest, the perpetrator traded material on a website with more than 100,000 registered users. The FBI busted him.

Purchasing illegal goods or services. If you buy illegal drugs or hire a hitman, you can be arrested for committing an illegal act. But browsing a website that offers those two things would not be illegal.

Difference between dark web and deep web

It’s easy to confuse the dark web with the deep web. But they aren’t the same.

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The deep web is also hidden, in a way. But it’s home to benign sites, such as people’s password-protected email accounts, the intranets run by businesses, the online bank account pages of consumers, government databases, and private sites that require users to type in a log-in name and password.

Think of the dark web, then, as a small subset of the deep web that has become a haven for illegal activity.

Is it illegal to access the dark web?

Surfing the dark web isn’t illegal. Buying illegal drugs or firearms from a site on the dark web or downloading child pornography? That is illegal.

Dark web browser

Many who access the dark web do so by first connecting to it with the Tor browser. Why? Because of the privacy it brings.

Tor stands for “the onion routing project,” and was developed by the U.S. Navy. It was made available to the public in 2004.

The Tor browser differs from others such as Chrome or Firefox because it does not take the most direct route from your device to the web. Instead, Tor uses a random set of encrypted servers known as nodes.

By connecting to the internet through these encrypted nodes, you do so anonymously. This is particularly useful to people who are logging onto the dark web for illegal merchandise or pornography or those logging on from countries in which governments routinely track individuals.

Sites on the dark web also use Tor to stay anonymous. This way, you or others won’t be able to uncover who is running these sites or where they are being hosted.

Dark web search engines

A search engine is not the same as a browser. While a browser lets you connect to the Internet, a search engine is what you use to search the internet once you get on it.

While you’ll use Tor to access the dark web, you’ll need to use a search engine to find its sites once you get on it. 

Some of the more popular dark web search engines include:

  1. DuckDuckGo: This is the Tor browser’s default search engine. DuckDuckGo’s main selling point is its privacy features. Because it does not track users, people can use it to browse the dark web anonymously.
  2. Torch: This search engine also doesn’t track users. Torch claims to be the oldest search engine on the dark web
  3. Ahmia.fi: This search engine lets you see links to dark web sites using a traditional broswer like Chrome, Firefox, or Microsoft Edge. To access those sites, you’ll still need the Tor browser, though.
  4. DarkSearch: DarkSearch claims to index Tor pages each day, surfing the dark web 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Dark web websites

Websites on the dark web set themselves apart with a unique domain name, .onion. Websites accessible through the Tor browser end in this domain name, just as sites reached through traditional browsers such as Chrome and Firefox end with such domain names as .com, .org, .gov, and .edu.

The names of dark web pages are unusual, too, and can make it difficult to find them. Instead of site names that are easy to memorize, such as CNN.com or Google.com, Tor sites are made up of a random series of numbers and letters. For instance, the web site of the torc dark web browser is cnkj6nippubgycuj.onion, while the Tor website for DuckDuckGo is 3g2upl4pq6kufc4m.onion.

Another challenge of finding dark web sites? They don’t often last. Many sites go defunct fairly quickly, either because they are shut down for illegal activity, their founders close shop after getting bored, or they move to a new address and name to help avoid detection.

Dark web commerce and cryptocurrency

The dark web wouldn’t be nearly as successful if it wasn’t for Bitcoin and other forms of cryptocurrency. Why? This type of virtual currency allows people to make sales or purchase items without knowing each other’s identity. This anonymity makes cryptocurrencies ideal for the dark web.

Because of this anonymity, Bitcoin and other forms of digital currency are the most commonly accepted form of payment on the dark web. People can use this virtual currency to purchase firearms, credentials and other items on the dark web. Of course, they can also use virtual currency to purchase legitimate items on the dark web.

You might think that it’s safe to buy items from the dark web as long as you’re using a form of online currency that keeps you anonymous. But this isn’t necessarily the case.

Remember, the anonymity of the dark web is attractive to scammers and criminals. There’s no guarantee that these thieves won’t scam you, even if you are using a virtual currency. Maybe the items you pay for won’t arrive. Or maybe the scammers will send you something you didn’t order. Many of the sites on the dark web don’t come with much protection.

What can you buy on the dark web?

What can you buy on the dark web? Plenty, though much of it you probably shouldn’t be purchasing. 

When you’re surfing the darkest corners of the web, you might find people selling: 

  • Stolen credit card numbers
  • Counterfeit gold bars
  • Marijuana
  • Crack cocaine
  • Firearms
  • Designer sweatshirts
  • High-end sunglasses
  • Pornography
  • Stolen Social Security numbers
  • Guides to living forever
  • Netflix accounts
  • Fake diplomas to Ivy League schools
  • Fake passports
  • Lifelike silicon face masks

Benefits of the dark web

The dark web gets a lot of negative press. That’s not surprising, considering the amount of illegal activity that takes place there. But this slice of the web isn’t all bad. There are many people who turn to the dark web for protection.

For instance, journalists and whistleblowers often work together to expose corruption at corporations and government agencies. They might use the dark web to communicate with each other without being detected by the same organizations they are investigating. 

The dark web is useful, too, in countries run by oppressive or authoritarian governments. The citizens of these countries might not be able to use traditional web browsers to access news sources critical of their governments. By using the dark web, these citizens can access online information anonymously, protecting themselves from censorship.

Political protestors might turn to the dark web, too, to remain anonymous while protesting the actions of their governments.

Frequently asked questions about the dark web

What is the dark web?

The dark web is a section of the Internet hidden to most mainstream web browsers. You’ll have to download the Tor browser to access this part of the web.

What happens on the dark web?

The dark web is filled with a wide variety of sites. It does, though, have a seedy reputation as a place where people sell illegal firearms, drugs, pornography, and stolen personal identification. However, many legitimate organizations also run sites on the dark web.

How can I access the dark web?

You can’t get to the dark web with browsers such as Chrome, Firefox, or Microsoft Edge. Instead, you’ll have to download the Tor browser. The Tor browser allows you to connect to the dark web anonymously, though you’ll still have to use search engines created for the dark web, such as DuckDuckGo, to find sites on it.

Is it illegal to access the dark web?

It is not illegal to visit the dark web. But you can face criminal charges if you use the dark web to purchase illegal firearms, drugs, pornography, stolen passwords, hacked credit card account numbers, or other items on it.

What is sold on the dark web?

You can find legitimate products such as baskeball shoes, apparel, face masks, and other items on the dark web. Of course, you can also find plenty of illegal items such as hacked Netflix accounts, stolen Social Security numbers, credit card account numbers, firearms, and drugs, too.

Is the dark web safe?

The dark web can be safe if you don’t use it to do anything illegal. But be careful: Many criminals and scammers operate on the dark web. Dealing with them is never safe.

How big is the dark web?

The dark web is quite small when compared with the internet as a whole. No one truly knows the size of the dark web, but some estimate that it accounts for just 5 percent of the total internet.

When was the dark web created?

Many cite March 20, 2000, as the birthplace of the dark web. That’s when Freenet, a peer-to-peer sharing network focused on anonymity, was launched.

Who created the dark web?

Surprisingly, the U.S. government is usually cited as the creator of the dark web. The government did this to allow spies to communicate with each other anonymously.

What you will find on Dark web?

But the dark web is better known for dark content — meaning, illegal and sometimes disturbing content. For instance, here’s a sample of illegal things you can find on the dark web.
Stolen information. When there’s been a data breach, there’s a chance the accessed information — from Social Security numbers to bank card numbers — will end up for sale on the dark web. You can also buy things like log-in credentials, hacked Netflix accounts, and more.
Illicit substances. Illegal drugs — and prescription drugs — are peddled on the dark web. You might also find toxic chemicals that can cause other types of damage.
Disturbing and dangerous items and services. It can get ugly fast. Things like gore, murderers-for-hire, human trafficking, child pornography, body parts, counterfeit goods, and guns for sale can be found on the dark web.

Is it illegal to access the dark web?

Surfing the dark web isn’t illegal. Buying illegal drugs or firearms from a site on the dark web or downloading child pornography? That is illegal.

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