For many people, the dark web first came into the light in 2013 when Ross Ulbricht, known as Dread Pirate Roberts, was arrested in the science fiction section of a San Francisco library. Ulbricht had created and run the Silk Road, a dark web marketplace. It’s estimated that the total sales of illegal goods and services like drugs facilitated by the site were worth over 9.5 million Bitcoins, which would be worth over $360 billion today.
The dark web has kept its ill repute—and not without cause. Some people still use it to buy and sell drugs, weapons, hacking software, and other types of illegal services. But that’s not all it is.
What’s the dark web?
The dark web is a part of the internet that search engines don’t index and that requires special security tools to access. As a result, it can offer more privacy and may be more difficult to navigate than other parts of the internet.
Because of these features, the dark web is home to a lot of criminal activity. but it’s hard to nail down exactly how much. One study from 2016 estimated that 57% of the sites on the dark web had illicit content. However, many sites on the dark web are taken down within a year, making this number hard to keep up-to-date.
But despite its ominous name, the dark web isn’t an inherently bad place. There are also legitimate and legal reasons someone may want to browse the internet anonymously. For example, journalists and dissidents living under oppressive governments might turn to the dark web to learn about and communicate with the rest of the world or evade censorship. Some news organizations use the dark web, for example, to create an anonymous way for whistleblowers to share documents and other materials.
The difference between the surface, deep, and dark web
The internet is broadly split into three layers: the surface web, deep web, and dark web. It’s far from an even split, though. Almost the entire internet falls within the deep web category, and a sliver of that is the dark web. The surface web is also much smaller than the deep web.
The surface web
The surface web is also called the indexed, visible, or clear web. It’s the parts of the internet that you can easily access from your web browser. Search engines send out spiders or web crawlers to search the surface web for new or updated websites and index these pages. They can then show up in your search engine results.
The deep web
The deep web—the majority of the internet—includes websites, pages, and other information that search engines don’t index. While this part of the internet won’t show up in your search engine results, it’s likely where you spend most of your time online.
For example, Netflix’s homepage is part of the surface web. But, once you log into your account, you enter the deep web. The same applies to online banking, email, and other services that require a login. And to companies’ intranets—the private networks that companies create.
Websites can be part of the deep web even if they don’t require a login. Some sites and pages intentionally block crawlers from indexing them, which keeps them off the surface web. As an example, search results on an ecommerce store, are also part of the deep web.
The dark web
The dark web is a subset of the deep web that’s made up of darknets, which are peer-run networks that are connected to the internet, but require special software or configurations to access. There’s more than one darknet, but the most popular and widely known is The Onion Routing (Tor) anonymity network, which is often discussed as “the” dark web.
The Tor network is run by volunteers around the world who set up computers to act as nodes or relays. When you access sites on the Tor network, your internet traffic is encrypted and passed through a series of relays—like the multiple layers of an onion. The setup can hide your location, help protect your privacy, and may allow you to evade government censorship.
Accessing the dark web
You can’t access the Tor network with your standard web browser. The non-profit Tor Project, which helps run the Tor network, also maintains and offers a free Tor Browser that you can use to get started.
The Tor browser works like other web browsers, and you can use it to access sites that are part of the surface and deep web. But the Tor browser is also how you can connect to sites that only exist on the Tor network.
These websites end in .onion, and their web address is a long series of sometimes nearly random letters and numbers. Here are a few examples:
- The CIA—ciadotgov4sjwlzihbbgxnqg3xiyrg7so2r2o3lt5wz5ypk4sxyjstad.onion
- The Tor Project—2gzyxa5ihm7nsggfxnu52rck2vv4rvmdlkiu3zzui5du4xyclen53wid.onion
Unlike on the surface web, you might have trouble finding these websites—it’s not always as simple as entering a question into a search engine. But there are some search engines, wikis, and websites that have lists of .onion addresses, which can help you browse the dark web.
In addition to layers of encryption that you’ll receive with Tor, the browser doesn’t allow third-party tracking, and it automatically clears your cookies every time you exit the browser. There’s also a button built into the browser you can use to “reset” your identity, which starts a brand-new browsing session without you having to close and reopen the program.
While your internet service provider will be able to tell that you’re using Tor, it won’t know which sites you’re visiting. However, Tor doesn't guarantee your anonymity. The Electronic Freedom Frontier has an interactive graphic that shows how using Tor can help protect your privacy.
What can you do on the dark web?
The Tor network is home to a variety of sites and services. Some of these are rather mundane, such as the same social networks and news organizations that you’ll find on the surface and deep web. There are also legitimate services that are set up on the dark web specifically because the encryption can help protect users’ anonymity.
But there’s no denying that there is a dark side to the dark web, and there are darknet marketplaces dedicated to illicit products and services. You can hire a hacker, buy malware, purchase false identities, and find different types of drugs. Some of most nefarious sites host child pornography.
There are also reports of hitmen offering their services on the dark web. Although—perhaps to no one’s surprise—fraudsters are also active on the dark web, and many of these sites are reportedly scams.
The dark web is also where hackers often go to sell stolen account access and personal information. If your name, Social Security number, credit card number, or other data was leaked during a data breach, there’s a good chance it will wind up on the dark web.
Is the dark web illegal?
Downloading Tor and accessing the dark web isn’t illegal. In fact, prior to 2019, the U.S. government was the largest financial sponsor of the Tor Project. In 2020, over 40% of the funding still came from government grants and contracts.
While the dark web might be home to illegal activity, people also try to hire hitmen on Craigslist and find drug dealers on social media. The legality comes down to what you’re doing, not whether it happens on the dark web, deep web, or surface web.
That being said, you may want to take extra precautions if you start poking around the dark web. It’s hard to tell whether a .onion URL is safe, and visiting some websites might infect your device with malware.
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