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What is the dark web? The dark web defined and explained

Whenever we tell people that our work at the EMCRC involves cyber crime, it's not long before we get asked about the dark web. It seems to be a mysterious place that people are interested in. So let's talk about it in some depth...


Dark web defined


The term "dark web" sounds ominous, and there's a reason for that. The dark web is a part of the internet that is made up of hidden sites that you can't find through conventional web browsers. Instead, you must rely on browsers and search engines designed specifically to unearth these hidden sites.


There’s also plenty of secrecy surrounding this corner of the internet. Sites on the dark web use encryption software so that their visitors and owners can remain anonymous and hide their locations. It’s why the dark web is home to so much illegal activity. If you tap into the dark web, you’ll find everything from illegal drug and gun sales to illicit pornography and stolen credit card and Social Security numbers.


But you should also know that there are legitimate reasons to visit this hidden region of the web.


Dissidents who fear political prosecution from their governments might use the dark web to communicate with each other. You might visit the dark web to get medical advice that you want to make sure remains anonymous. Sometimes journalists use the dark web so that they or their sources can remain anonymous.


In this blog, we aim to help you learn about the dark web, the sites that populate it and how you can visit it. Be careful, though: The dark web can be dangerous. And if you want to explore it for illegal activities, you could face prosecution and jail time. Depending on where you visit, and what you download, you could also be exposed to scammers and cybercriminals who could attempt to infect your devices with malware or steal your personal information.


What’s on the dark web?


The dark web has earned some of its seedy reputation. A 2016 report from researchers Daniel Moore and Thomas Rid, of King’s College in London, looked at 5,205 live sites on the dark web and found that 2,723 contained illicit content.


What does this mean? Well, the report found that visitors to the dark web can buy and sell guns, drugs, counterfeit money, other people’s Netflix accounts, credit card numbers, and more. You can also find software that you can use to access other people’s computers.


But, again, the dark web isn’t just for criminals. You’ll also come across online versions of books that have long been out of print, a collection of political reporting from mainstream news sites, and several sites run by whistleblowers looking to expose corporate and government corruption.


A brief history of the dark web


Like all things dealing with the internet, the dark web traces its history to 1969, when the Advanced Research Projects Agency, better known as ARPA, developed a computer communications network that eventually become the internet that we know today.


A key event for the dark web came in 2002, when the alpha version of the Tor web browser was launched. This browser, short for The Onion Router, is a free and open-source software that allows people to travel the web anonymously. The development of the Tor Browser that is commonly used today to access the dark web began in 2008.


Another big event occurred in 2009, when Bitcoin software was released to the public. Bitcoin is key for the dark web because this digital currency gives users the chance to purchase items anonymously. This is useful for people who want to buy something illegal.


Then came 2011, when the Silk Road online marketplace launched on the dark web. The founder of this site was able to use the combination of the internet, Tor browser, and bitcoin to give people the chance to buy drugs and make other illegal purchases anonymously.


Law enforcement authorities eventually shut down Silk Road. But other online marketplaces have popped up on the dark web to take its place. This includes sites such as AlphaBay, Dream Market, Hansa, and Wall Street Market. These dark web markets have all been either shut down or taken down, but others continously surface.


What's the difference between the dark web and the deep web?


Did you even know the deep web was a thing? Well it is, and it’s easy to confuse the dark web with the deep web. But they aren’t the same.


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, however, most definitely is!


For instance, in the summer of 2018, the U.S. Department of Justice, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Secret Service, Drug Enforcement Administration, and the U.S. Postal Inspection Service teamed up to arrest more than 35 dark web vendors of drugs, weapons, and other illegal products. The agencies also seized $23.6 million in illegal guns, drugs, gold, and Bitcoin.


What if I want to have a look on the dark web?


You will need to download Tor. Tor stands for The Onion Router, or “the onion routing project” to give it its full title, and was developed by the U.S. Navy. It was made available to the public in 2004.


Tor is a browser that people use to connect to the internet anonymously. It is also a popular browser for people who want to access the dark web. In fact, you can’t access the dark web through browsers such as Chrome, Firefox, or Microsoft Edge. You’ll need Tor to get to dark web sites.


Once you download Tor, you can connect to the dark web. Tor, though, won’t find any sites on the dark web for you. You’ll actually have to find the dark web sites that you want to search on your own.


This remains tricky because sites on the dark web don’t come with easy to remember URLs, and many disappear suddenly. Usually, you’ll need to know the names and URLs of the dark web sites you want to visit. There are lists of dark web sites available, but be careful down there - there are plenty of illegal sites on those lists, and many of the listed sites will already be defunct.


We cannot stress enough that if you really want to visit the dark web, you do so at your own risk. Inexperienced users could be hacked, defrauded or held to ransom (ransomware). We do not recommend casual web users access the dark web.


Consider using a VPN


If, having read the above, you STILL want to access the dark web, you may want to boost your privacy while surfing. Consider purchasing a virtual private network - or VPN. A VPN provides you with anonymity by creating a private network from a public internet connection. This prevents online criminals from eavesdropping on your Wi-Fi connection and intercepting any data you might be sending or receiving.


Carefully browse and do not divulge any personal information. Again, be careful when browsing the dark web. Even if you are visiting this corner of the internet for legitimate reasons, it’s easy to stumble upon some bad places. Don’t divulge any of your personal information and don’t do anything online that you wouldn’t do in real life.


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:


  • 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.

  • Torch: This search engine also doesn't track users. Torch claims to be the oldest search engine on the dark web

  • 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.

  • 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 memorise, such as Amazon.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 organisations 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.


To recap, here are some 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 organisations 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 basketball 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.


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.




 

Reporting

Report all Fraud and Cybercrime to Action Fraud by calling 0300 123 2040 or online. Forward suspicious emails to report@phishing.gov.uk. Report SMS scams by forwarding the original message to 7726 (spells SPAM on the keypad).

 

The contents of blog posts on this website are provided for general information only and are not intended to replace specific professional advice relevant to your situation. The intention of East Midlands Cyber Resilience Centre (EMCRC) is to encourage cyber resilience by raising issues and disseminating information on the experiences and initiatives of others. Articles on the website cannot by their nature be comprehensive and may not reflect most recent legislation, practice, or application to your circumstances. EMCRC provides affordable services and Trusted Partners if you need specific support. For specific questions please contact us by email.

 

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