Imagine an alternate reality where your identity was hidden and almost anything was possible – where you could get almost anything, good or bad, for the right price. Believe it or not, a similar world exists just beneath the surface of the Internet we all know and love.
It’s easy to confuse the deep web and the dark web because they’re both massive slices of the internet that the average user will probably never see. This explanation, however, will make them easy to understand.
First, let’s start with what you know – the clearnet or surface net. This is the most visible part of the internet and it’s where you are right now. This is any website that can be found via search engine or that has links pointing to it that can be accessed by anyone.
The deep web is any part of the internet that is not indexed by search engines or other sites that aggregate or collect content to make it accessible. When you use a search engine, it searches a collection of sites and pages that it has already sorted, or indexed, into its own database. However, not all sites allow this. These sites can’t be found unless you can find the link or enter the address into your browser. Most of these sites and pages can be rather mundane, like private Facebook posts or pages that site administrators have chosen to hide (you don’t want your 404 error message showing up in searches, for example).
The dark web (which can be considered a subset of the deep web) is any website that requires the use of special software or other connection settings in order to access it. Some are simply password protected and others are open to the public, but almost all require their users to browse anonymously and to use encrypted connections. The dark web has plenty of mundane content, but it can also lend a level of anonymity and security to users and websites who, for one reason or another, don’t want to be found.
Though there are different ways to access it, most of the dark web can be unlocked using a special browser called Tor. Unlike your average browser, Tor relays your traffic through multiple servers around the world to help ensure anonymity. In addition, there’s a special type of URL – one that ends in .onion – that will only accept visitors if they’re using a Tor browser.
The dark web, by definition, requires special software to access it. Get the software and you’ve unlocked the key to the dark web, though by no means does that mean you should dive in head first!
The dark web allows both website creators and visitors – with a bit of precaution and the use of a compatible VPN – to become very hard to track, if not totally anonymous. To give you an idea of the types of things that can happen on the dark web, we’ve collected a list of the top 10 most fascinating .onion sites – both good and bad – that you can find on the dark web.
Note: We will not provide the Tor links to these sites. It is impossible to access .onion sites without a Tor browser, and it is highly suggested that you get a VPN if you plan to visit the dark web as well. In addition, some of the websites mentioned contain illegal or disturbing content. Because the dark web is less regulated, there can also be plenty of scams and malicious activity present. Browse at your own risk.
Sci-Hub is a controversial website that grants free access to hundreds of thousands of scientific research papers that usually require expensive memberships or one-time memberships to read. Some celebrate the completely open access to scientific knowledge, while others criticize the site for undermining scientific publishers.
ProPublica is an award-winning news website celebrated for its openness and dedication to journalism. While it is available on the clearnet as well, they’ve also created an .onion site, allowing readers to browse anonymously and for leakers to feel secure when uploading sensitive documents.
Wikileaks, the famous (or infamous) website responsible for leaking numerous classified documents, also has an .onion domain. Although the website and its founder, Julian Assange, have already gone to great lengths to ensure that document leakers feel safe, the .onion domain gives them an additional layer of security and anonymity. In certain positions or countries, leaking documents can be a very risky practice.
A relatively benign (but illegal) website, Beneath VT contains detailed information about the steam tunnels found below Virginia Tech University. The site is careful to point out that visiting the vast net of interconnected underground tunnels is both illegal and highly dangerous, as the steam pipes can reach temperatures of 100 degrees Celsius or more!
The dark web contains a number of online communities that invite victims of rape or abuse to congregate and share information anonymously and securely. Anonymity is important because society still often stigmatizes victims of rape, and abuse victims may be endangered if their attempts at communication are discovered.
The Silk Road was the quintessential symbol of an online dark web black market – until its founder was captured by the FBI. Visitors could purchase anything from books and artwork to a dizzying array of illegal drugs. However, certain more dangerous and harmful products, like weapons or stolen goods, were off-limits. Although founder Ross Ulbricht is currently serving a life sentence without parole for his role in the site’s operations, that hasn’t stopped a number of other dark web sites from popping up to follow in his footsteps.
Some dark web sites offer the services of cybercriminals for hire. The attacks you can order depend on the talent of the hacker, the risk of attacking the target in question, and the money involved. There are even rumors of professional hitmen for hire on the dark web, but many suspect that most of them are sting sites created by law enforcement.
The dark web contains a number of marketplaces peddling products involving identity theft. Visitors can purchase stolen credit cards, compromised PayPal accounts, passwords, and other illegal products and data. Other dark web sites sell viruses, malware, and other tools that help identity thieves ply their trade.
Although the Silk Road didn’t sell weapons, it had a sister site that did. This site and others sold guns, ammunition, and sometimes even explosives. At this level of the dark web, websites rarely retain their web domains for long, as they are actively pursued by law enforcement agencies around the world.
The dark web is a powerful tool for both good and evil. When it comes to online anonymity, many detractors point out that criminals or even terrorists can use anonymous services (like Tor browsers, VPNs or encrypted chat systems) to evade law enforcement. This is true, but all of these services are double-edged blades. They can also be used to achieve great things, like promoting government transparency, aiding dissidents in repressive states, reducing corporate influence on our lives, increasing privacy, and protecting the victims of stigmatized crimes – to name but a few.
Privacy is a tool. The way that we use it often says more about us and our society than it does about the tool itself.