DISCLAIMER: The information I’ve shared here is for helping spread awareness for learning purposes only. If you use it to access the Dark Web and put yourself or others at risk I accept no responsibility or liability. This information is provided as-is. Use it at your own risk/peril.
The Internet most everyday people know is a mere shadow of the whole thing. Search engines like Google and Bing index <20% of the total number of sites that exist on the Internet. The remaining >80% exist outside of what most of us know as the Internet, hidden from those search engines, encrypted and obscured in the Deep and Dark layers of the Web. These are not the same thing.
The Internet Is An Onion?
Yes. The Internet is like an onion. It has many layers. It has layers within layers. A simple way to look at these layers at a high-level is like this:
- The Surface Web – This is the Web as most people know it – searchable using any common search engine.
The Deep Web – This is the layer that hides a significant percentage of online content behind paywalls (paid subscription required to access research, or online newspapers and magazines, for example), firewalls, and other sorts of private walls that block access to the public at large. These types of information include things like private email sites and file-sharing services, financial, health, and legal records that are not intended to ever be public.
The Dark Web – This is a whole set of layers, a vast number of layers, an onion unto itself by intention and obscured by encryption. These layers (sites) also do not end in .com or .org like “normal” sites. They end in .onion
Again, the Deep Web and the Dark Web are not the same thing. Regular browsers can access sites and content on the Deep Web with the right permissions. However, regular browsers can’t access sites and content on the Dark Web without the use of The Onion Router (TOR), which is a hidden service protocol, making these resources inaccessible to regular search engines while offering its users and publishers anonymity.
Pulling Apart The Onion
These layers all have layers, too. Not all content or activity on the Dark Web is criminal. Some of it may be controversial but that doesn’t make it illegal.
For example, there are sites on the Dark Web that are concerned with heavy mathematical puzzles related to cryptography. Others are dedicated to technology and product design using elegant tactics to preserve users’ security and privacy. Some sites are interested in preserving specific rights of people, such as freedom of speech, which would create a great deal of controversy on the Surface Web.
By far, the Dark Web is known to most everyday people for illegal and often disturbing stuff like this:
- Stolen Personally Identifiable Information – After a successful data breach, there’s a pretty good likelihood that the valuable details of those impacted will end up for sale somewhere on the Dark Web. Things like logins and passwords to services like email, Netflix, banking, and much more. Sites on the Dark Web can make upwards of $1M per day selling these kinds of assets in various combinations and bundles to be used in more targeted criminal activities.
- Controlled Substances – Illegal and prescription drugs alike are sold here, as well as other powerful and toxic chemicals that can be used for any number of nefarious activities.
- Dangerous Items and Services – All the most unsavory things in the world are here from human trafficking, child pr0n, snuff films, black market human organs, counterfeit goods, guns, and bad guys for hire are all for sale here.
How do people get away with it? How do they initiate and carry out financial transactions without it being traced back to them and getting them in trouble? These activities are carried out through the exchange of cryptocurrency that maintains anonymity.
Is The Dark Web safe?
Yes. And no. Here are some reasons the answer isn’t straightforward:
- Criminal Networks – Criminals run their sites and organize an entire economy here. While they’re doing their regular day-to-day operations here, they’re sharp and always on the lookout for those new to the Dark Web to exploit and steal from. It’s easy to click on something and infect your device with malware, for example, especially if you’re new and don’t know what you’re doing.
- Company You Keep – Anyone tied to criminal activity on the Dark Web can be prosecuted for things you do or appear to have done (this is a grey area still).
- Unsavory Content – It’s easy to end up viewing material of a highly disturbing (and illegal) nature, such as child, domestic, and other kinds of abuse. may be taken to material you might not want to see.
- Getting On Lists and Radar – Law enforcement, such as police departments and 3-letter-government agencies hang out on the Dark Web to catch criminals engaged in real criminal activity and they do it anonymously, too, so if you venture in be advised that you assume a great deal of risk if you’re not on the up and up. Even just being there can put you on lists and attract attention you may not want. Be advised.
If you decide to venture to the dark web, it’s smart to consult with someone who has experience accessing and navigating it safely to prevent putting yourself at preventable risks.
Exploring The Layers
Finding relevant sites and materials on the Dark Web is also more complicated than using the typical search engines most of us are used to. Unlike Google or Bing, there’s no index or page ranking system for the Dark Web. We’re on our own to find stuff like we were in the days before search engines make things so easy. While there are Dark Web search engines, they do not censor or offer any guidance and include illegal and illicit sites and content. The Tor Browser is the most popular tool used to access the Dark Web but it’s not advised to use it without some guidance (I accept no responsibility for anyone who uses or misuses any of the information in this post, by the way, especially if they get into trouble doing so).
Accessing The Onion
If your curiousity is eating you alive and you just have to see it for yourself, here are a few tips and tools to help stay safe when accessing the Dark Web. There’s much more to consider but at the very least please be mindful of these:
- If you download and install Tor be sure to check the signature to verify the download is from a source you can trust. It’s common that newbies download infected Tor browsers and get in trouble before they even begin. If you don’t know how to verify a software downloads signature you might be getting in over your head.
- Keep your Operating System, Tor browser, and any realted applications up-to-date. This is critical under normal circumstances but especially when choosing to swim with the sharks on the Dark Web.
- Do whatever you can to preserve your anonymity by not using your regular or primary email address when using Tor. While it’s true Tor is designed to keep you anonymous, if you use your regular email address you expose your real identity.
Tor Has Limitations
If you decide to try it out (Tor Browser is the most popular way to access the Dark Web), be aware that while it anonymizes your activities using encryption and randomizing it across other computers located elsewhere across the Internet (called Tor nodes) there are some limitations:
- Browsing using Tor is exponentially slower than regular browsers because of the encryption and anonymization going on in the background.
- Some websites block the Tor browser so be prepared for that.
- While Tor shields you somewhat from eavesdropping and surveillance, it can’t protect you from sites that host malicious content or prevent anything bad from happening when you click on a link you shouldn’t have.
Here, There Be Onions
Please keep these tips in mind if you decide to explore the many Dark layers of the Web. Also, be wary of some services out there that claim to scan the Dark Web on your behalf for stolen credentials, etc. Some of these are legit and actually have expertise and experience but there are many more of these that far outnumber legit ones that are only using sites like https://haveibeenpwned.com to simulate the same thing, which isn’t the same thing. You can do this yourself – cheaply and safely without access anything risky.
Again, if you have a legit reason to access the Dark Web be sure to seek some guidance from someone you trust who has experience and fluency rather than creating a regrettable situation for yourself that could otherwise be avoided.
Meanwhile, have fun learning new things out there and above all – make good choices to stay safe.
Thanks for reading.