Privacy glossary

Dark Web


What is the Dark Web?

The Dark Web is the portion of the Internet that can only be accessed through specific software. Most casual surfing of the Web takes place on a small piece (5-10%) of the total World Wide Web; this is sometimes called the Surface Web. The other 90-95%—the Deep Web—is basically all the content not indexed by search engines. The Dark Web, by turn, is a fractional part of the larger Deep Web, and requires special browsers to view and navigate.

Several technical features make the Dark Web a unique subset of the Deep Web. Dark Web sites are not viewable on standard browsers like Chrome or Safari—accessing Dark Web sites requires a special browser. Anonymity protocols are standard practice for Dark Web users; traffic is often more heavily encrypted, and sometimes routed through proxy servers. Taken together, these techniques make it very difficult (but not impossible) to trace a Dark Web user’s location and activity. This heightened attention to security and anonymity is what characterizes the Dark Web.

The first Dark Web technology—specifically, masking data by routing traffic through multiple servers—was created by the United States government in the 1990s as a tool for secure communications in intelligence-gathering activities. This technology was later released to the public, again to support secure, anonymous communication. The concept of untraceability naturally appealed to people and sites who wanted to stay anonymous online.

It’s difficult to quantify how many unique sites are available on the Dark Web, but estimates range around 20,000 or less. As with the Surface Web and Deep Web, Dark Web sites can run the gamut from legal to illegal activities.

What’s on the Dark Web?

The Dark Web is used by a variety of people for very different purposes, but they all share a common need for anonymity and security. Here’s a sampling of the types of activity found on the Dark Web:

  • Commerce: The sale of both legal and illegal goods or content. Transactions are often settled using cryptocurrency, with bitcoin being the most popular option.
  • Anonymous communication: Messaging, email, and forums for info sharing. Users of these communication channels include whistleblowers, activist groups, journalists, and individuals that want to circumvent censorship or government surveillance.
  • Hackers: These computer hackers may be available for hire, and may hack for a variety of clients and a variety of reasons.

How do I access the Dark Web?

You need a special browser that’s specifically programmed to access certain parts of the Dark Web. There are several systems, but a very popular one is Tor, or “The onion router.” Using the Tor browser gives you access to all domain names ending with “.onion”, also called the onion network. Onion routing is the original technology developed in the 1990s that made the Dark Web possible.

Onion routing is the process of building multiple layers between the start point and the end point of any digital exchange. There are two parts in onion routing: the path the data takes, and the encryption of that data. To illustrate this, let’s look at a user posting a message to a Dark Web forum. The user is the start point, the forum website is the end point, and the message is the data.

The Tor browser selects a route of several stops, or nodes, for the data to follow, and then wraps the data in several layers of encryption to protect it from being read if intercepted along its route. Each layer of encryption also contains the location of one of the nodes on the chosen route. The encrypted data is sent from the Tor browser to the first node on the route. At that node, the first layer of encryption is peeled away, exposing the next node on the route, and the data is then sent along to the second node. This process repeats several times until the data arrives at the forum website. At no point along the route can any node or eavesdropper know both the start point (the user) and the end point (the forum), and until it reaches the end, the message is not readable.

This is how anonymity is built and data is protected in the Tor browser system. There are other Dark Web access systems that use different mechanisms, but they’re all built to provide strong anonymity and security. Users can’t be tracked or monitored based on the sites visited, however they might be trackable depending on certain activities like purchases.

The Dark Web is not accurately indexed or searchable, which makes it difficult to quantify the overall safety of Dark Web sites. Some people and groups (like law enforcement agencies) consider the Dark Web to be dangerous. Proponents of the Dark Web disagree, noting the Dark Web is also a safe haven for risky communications. Some major news organizations have Dark Web sites to reach users in countries where Web access is censored or restricted. Sites that  anonymously relay whistleblowing information use the Dark Web to protect their users.

It’s not illegal to access the Dark Web but—as with the Surface Web—certain activities can be considered illegal. However, note that by accessing the Dark Web you may attract attention from law enforcement agencies who monitor Dark Web activity. FBI, Europol, Interpol, and many other national police agencies regularly police the Dark Web. Their methods include going undercover (posing as customers in some Dark Web marketplaces), hacking into sites to track or fingerprint users, and tracing financial transactions to identify buyer and seller.

As with the Surface Web, precaution should always be taken no matter what you do or where you go online.

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