What is the dark web

Explore the hidden depths of the dark web: Learn how to access it safely, understand its unique structure, and navigate its risks while protecting your privacy and security.

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What is the dark web?

The dark web might sound like a mysterious part of the internet, and in many ways, it is. It’s a segment of the internet hidden from view, not showing up in search results or accessible through regular web browsers. To enter this hidden world, users rely on the Tor browser, a specialized tool designed to keep web activity private by bouncing it through a network of relays around the globe. This part of the internet also uses advanced encryption, which helps both those visiting and hosting sites to stay anonymous.

Although it is true that the dark web can be a hotspot for illegal activities due to its anonymity, it’s not just for those with nefarious intentions. In fact, millions of people navigate the dark web daily for legitimate reasons. This hidden layer of the internet provides an essential service for those seeking privacy and security not available on the regular web. It is particularly vital for users in countries under oppressive regimes, offering a lifeline for free speech. Journalists, whistleblowers, and activists use the dark web to exchange information safely, away from the prying eyes of governments or malicious actors, highlighting its role as a double-edged sword in the digital age.

Advantages of using the dark web

The dark web often carries a negative connotation, largely due to its association with illegal activities. However, it also offers significant advantages, especially in terms of privacy and security. For individuals living under oppressive regimes or anyone needing to communicate away from the watchful eyes of surveillance, the dark web is a valuable tool. A substantial portion of users turn to the Tor browser for its promise of anonymity, while others seek the additional security it provides. Curiosity about what the dark web has to offer also drives about one-third of its users.

The ability to communicate without the risk of being tracked is crucial for:

  • Journalists and whistleblowers: They collaborate to shed light on corruption within corporations and government agencies.
  • Citizens in restrictive countries: They can access unbiased news sources that are otherwise censored or blocked.
  • Political activists: They find a safe space to organize and protest without fear of government retaliation.
  • Individuals seeking private medical consultations: They can obtain advice without compromising their privacy.
  • Journalists sourcing sensitive information: They ensure their informants can stay anonymous.

Regular internet users also benefit from the dark web’s layers of anonymity and security for a variety of legal and safe activities, including:

  • Educational purposes: Accessing academic research without barriers.
  • Privacy-focused browsing: Using search engines that do not track your searches or bombard you with ads.
  • Content access: Viewing materials that are restricted in certain regions.
  • Financial privacy: More securely managing [cryptocurrency](https://www.malwarebytes.com/cryptocurrency) transactions.
  • Social media use: Engaging on platforms free from government surveillance.
  • Special interest exploration: Discovering unique content, from anonymous chess matches to blogs about secret underground tunnels.
  • Anonymous communications: Participating in chat boards where users can speak freely without revealing their identity.

These examples highlight the dark web’s dual nature: while it can be a haven for illegal activities, it also serves as a crucial platform for freedom of expression and privacy.

Potential risks and threats on the dark web 

While the dark web can serve as a platform for legitimate content and privacy, it’s also a space where safety can be compromised. Only a [small fraction of users, around 6.7%, navigate the dark web with malicious intent, but the risks associated with its use are significant and require careful navigation.

Safety concerns on the dark web include encountering criminal-run websites offering illegal goods and services, with the added risk of exploitation and theft. Engaging in illicit activities can lead to prosecution, as the law applies equally in this hidden part of the internet. Suspicious links and downloads pose a threat too, potentially leading to exposure to unwanted material or malware infections. Law enforcement’s presence, operating anonymously, aims to curb criminal activities, but it also underscores the dark web’s legal dangers.

Viruses and hacker forums are prevalent, with various types of malware and opportunities for illegal hacking services, which could compromise your personal devices. Webcam hijacking, through remote administration tools, presents a privacy invasion risk, highlighting the importance of physical safeguards like covering webcams when not in use.

The dark web’s hazards include many risks, related to network breaches or data compromises. These range from infections, unauthorized access, espionage, and phishing, to the theft of sensitive information like customer and financial data, intellectual property, and more. Each category carries risks of devaluing enterprises through reputational damage, disrupting operations via malware attacks, or defrauding companies through theft of critical information.

Moreover, ransomware-as-a-service (RaaS) has emerged as a significant threat, with criminal groups like REvil and GandCrab offering sophisticated malware through the dark web. These attacks not only compromise data but also threaten to release it publicly unless a ransom is paid, demonstrating a lucrative business model for cybercriminals. According to IBM Security X-Force, a notable percentage of ransomware incidents involved such groups, with REvil’s profits estimated at $81 million in a single year.

When venturing into the dark web, it is crucial to prioritize safety by educating oneself about potential risks and employing robust security measures to protect data and maintain privacy.

What happens if you go on the Dark Web? 

The Dark Web is a bit like the Wild West of the Internet. Your computer will not explode as long as you browse the roads less traveled safely. Take the wrong turn though, and you may:

  1. Download malware.
  2. Unknowingly share sensitive personal information with a bad actor.
  3. Get in the bad books of law enforcement.
  4. Come across media that traumatizes you for years.
  5. End up on a Dark Web page created by a scammer to blackmail you.

How does the dark web look like?

The dark web is a marketplace for both legitimate and illegal goods. While you can find products like basketball shoes, apparel, and research papers, there’s also a darker side where illegal items are traded. This includes:

  • Stolen credit card numbers and Social Security numbers.
  • Hacked Netflix accounts and other stolen account login information.
  • Illegal drugs and firearms.
  • Counterfeit goods, such as designer knockoffs.
  • Pornography, including content that may be banned or restricted.
  • Fake diplomas from prestigious universities.
  • Forged passports and other false identification documents.
  • Malware and other tools for cybercrime.

Despite its notorious reputation, the dark web is not solely a haven for criminal activity. It also hosts valuable resources and platforms for free expression:

  • Rare books and academic papers that are hard to find elsewhere.
  • Collections of political reporting from reputable news sources.
  • Whistleblower websites dedicated to exposing corruption in corporations and governments.

Navigating the dark web requires caution, as the line between legal and illegal content can be thin, and the risks associated with accessing certain types of information can be significant.

Is it illegal to access the dark web?

No, simply accessing the dark web using Tor or other anonymizing browsers is not illegal. However, engaging in illegal activities on the dark web, such as viewing child pornography, selling drugs, or participating in other illicit transactions, is against the law. It is important to differentiate between the tool (Tor) and the actions performed using that tool.

While the dark web has a reputation for hosting nefarious activities, it also serves legitimate purposes. It’s a platform for privacy and free speech, offering resources for individuals in countries with restrictive internet policies. The dark web hosts educational materials, whistleblower sites, and even mainstream media outlets, making it a valuable tool for research and information.

Additionally, law enforcement agencies and journalists often monitor the dark web to track illegal activities and gather news stories.

Dark web vs. deep web

The terms Darknet, Deep Web, and Clear Net are often used interchangeably, but they refer to distinct parts of the internet, each serving different purposes and accessibility levels.

  • Clear Net (Surface Web): This is the part of the internet most people are familiar with. It’s the visible portion of the web that can be accessed through standard search engines like Google, Bing, etc. The Clear Net is like the tip of an iceberg, representing only a small fraction of the entire internet.
  • Deep Web: Comprising about 90% of the entire World Wide Web, the Deep Web includes pages not indexed by standard search engines. It contains password-protected areas, databases, and private sites, such as online banking pages, government databases, and intranets. Access to Deep Web content often requires authentication.
  • Darknet: A small, encrypted part of the Deep Web, the Darknet is accessed using special tools like the Tor browser for anonymity. It’s known for both illegal activities and as a space for free, anonymous communication, especially important for journalists, whistleblowers, and those under oppressive regimes. The Darknet operates on the Tor network, providing security and privacy.

Content on the Dark Web exists on overlay networks that use the Internet and special tools and configurations to sustain security and privacy. Networks on the Dark Web mask sensitive information, like user locations, while conducting business by utilizing these complex systems. These networks are made of small Peer-to-peer (P2P) networks as well as larger networks like TOR.

TOR is the most popular way to access the Dark Web while shielding a user’s location. Also known as The Onion Router, TOR enables users to browse the Internet, including the Dark Web, anonymously. It bounces traffic through several servers before delivering it to its destination, making it harder to track a user’s activity or location.

How to access the dark web

Accessing the dark web can be straightforward, but navigating it requires caution. Here’s a brief guide on how to safely access the dark web and some tips for using it.

Tor Browser: Your access point to the dark web 

The primary gateway to the dark web is the Tor browser, which stands for “The Onion Router.” Developed by the U.S. Navy and released to the public in 2004, Tor is favored for its unmatched security and privacy features. Unlike conventional browsers like Chrome or Firefox, Tor does not take the most direct path from your device to the web. Instead, it routes your connection through a series of encrypted servers, or nodes, to maintain anonymity for both users and websites.

To get started, visit the Tor Project website and download the Tor browser. Once installed, you can connect to the dark web. However, keep in mind that Tor itself won’t direct you to dark web sites. You’ll need to find and navigate to the specific dark web addresses on your own.

Navigating with dark web search engines 

Once you have accessed the dark web using the Tor Browser, finding specific sites can be challenging due to their complex URLs and the transient nature of many dark web pages. To navigate more effectively, you can use a dark web search engine. It’s important to note that a search engine is different from a browser: while a browser connects you to the internet, a search engine helps you find information once you’re online.

When on the dark web, you will need a search engine designed for that environment. Some popular dark web search engines include:

  • DuckDuckGo: This is the default search engine for the Tor browser. DuckDuckGo is known for its privacy features, as it doesn’t track users, making it a preferred option for anonymous browsing on the dark web.
  • Torch: Another search engine that doesn’t track users, Torch claims to be the oldest search engine on the dark web.
  • Ahmia.fi: This search engine allows you to see links to dark web sites using traditional browsers like Chrome, Firefox, or Microsoft Edge. However, to access these sites, you’ll still need the Tor browser.

Using these search engines can help you find and explore sites on the dark web more efficiently.

Understanding dark web websites 

Dark web websites have distinct characteristics that set them apart from those on the surface web. One key feature is their unique domain name extension: .onion. While traditional websites accessed through browsers like Chrome and Firefox end with domain names like .com, .org, .gov, and .edu, sites on the dark web accessed through the Tor browser end in .onion.

The URLs of dark web pages are also notably unusual. Instead of easily memorable names like CNN.com or Google.com, Tor sites typically consist of a random series of numbers and letters. For example:

Surface Web URLs:

  • Amazon.com
  • Wikipedia.org
  • NYTimes.com

Dark Web URLs (hypothetical examples):

  • deepweb2teloq5cl.onion
  • secmailw453j7piv.onion
  • Zqktlwi4fecvo6ri.onion

Note: The dark web URLs listed above are for illustrative purposes only and may not correspond to actual, active websites on the dark web.

Another challenge in navigating the dark web is the transient nature of its websites. Many dark web sites are short-lived, disappearing due to various reasons such as being shut down for illegal activities, the operators losing interest, or relocating to new addresses to evade detection. This impermanence adds to the difficulty of finding and accessing specific dark web pages.

How to access the dark web on iPhone

You’ll need to follow the same precautions listed in the section above to access the Dark Web safely from your iPhone. For example, you should have a list of safe Dark Web websites and you must take steps to protect your security and privacy. In addition, you’ll need:

  • TOR Browser – Dark Web: This specially designed onion browser for iOS allows you to securely access the Dark Web.
  • Malwarebytes for iOS: Download cybersecurity software for iOS to protect your device from malicious websites, online scams, and unsafe platforms that may carry ransomware, phishing scams, and other threats that target Safari.
  • VPN for iPhone: Use the Malwarebytes Privacy VPN app for iPhone to secure your connection and stop eavesdroppers from snooping on your activity.

Tips for navigating on the dark web

Navigating the dark web requires careful consideration to protect your personal information, similar to precautions taken on the surface web. Here are some tips to enhance your security:

Enhancing security with a VPN

For an additional layer of security, consider using a Virtual Private Network (VPN). A VPN enhances your anonymity by creating a private network from a public internet connection. It allows you to mask your location and obscures your online activities, making it more difficult for cybercriminals to track you. By using a VPN, you can prevent eavesdroppers from intercepting your data when you’re connected to public Wi-Fi or any unsecured network.

Staying cautious and protecting your information on the dark web

When exploring the dark web, it’s crucial to exercise caution, as it’s not devoid of risks. Despite its reputation for privacy and security, the dark web is home to scams, phishing sites, and malware targeting unsuspecting users. Here are some additional safety tips to keep in mind:

  • Protect Your Personal Information: Be cautious about sharing any personal details. The dark web often lacks SSL certificates, making it challenging to discern the legitimacy of websites.
  • Verify URLs: Be skeptical of publicly posted onion URLs. If you can’t obtain a recommendation from a trusted source, cross-check the URL with multiple sources to ensure its authenticity.
  • Avoid Unknown Links: Be mindful of the links you click on. Offensive or harmful material could be just a click away.
  • Maintain Real-World Ethics: Remember that the dark web is not a lawless zone. Avoid engaging in activities online that you would not consider appropriate in the real world. Law enforcement and government agencies may still be monitoring activities on the dark web.

By following these precautions, you can navigate the dark web more safely, minimizing the risks associated with its use.

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How big is the dark web?

The dark web is relatively small compared to the entire internet. While its exact size is unknown, some estimates suggest that it makes up only about 5% of the total internet.

When was the dark web created?

The dark web's origins are often traced back to March 20, 2000, with the launch of Freenet, a peer-to-peer sharing network designed to prioritize anonymity.