The dark web is a part of the internet that many people will never find themselves on, but it contains a huge amount of content. Far below the Googles, Facebooks, and eBays, and buried even below the forgotten Myspaces and the password-protected email inboxes and cloud storage drives, is an underground internet that can only be accessed using special tools. What is the dark web, how does one get there, and should you ever take that risk?
The dark web is a part of the internet that consists of websites that hide their IP addresses from the wider web. Unlike content on the surface web, they require special programs or technologies to access, and these will often hide the visitors' IP addresses from the website as well. Accessing them without these special tools is impossible. All dark web sites are hosted through the dark net and nearly all traffic is encrypted.
The origins of the dark web started in the form of a student’s final project at the University of Edinburgh. The original intent was to create a decentralized peer-to-peer file-sharing program. Created by Ian Clarke in 1999, the project soon evolved to become Freenet — a platform of free speech online. Users could discuss, share, and publish information anonymously and completely free of government censorship.
Freenet’s release to the public in 2000 helped to bring attention and demand for a way to stay anonymous online. It was followed by Tor, which eventually became a browser offering easier dark web access.
The most popular dark web browser is called Tor. Most internet users who delve into the dark web will use this option. The name appears alongside most references to the dark web, but how exactly does this dark web browser work? Tor (The Onion Router) was originally created by the US government as a tool for different military organizations to exchange messages and information anonymously.
The name of this dark web browser comes from the method it uses to encrypt messages. The Tor browser wraps data in different layers of encryption (like an onion) and sends it through a network of ‘Onion Routers.' Each router the data passes through sheds away a layer of encryption and sends the partially decrypted message to the next destination. The process repeats until the message arrives at its intended destination. While this technique keeps the dark web operations anonymous, it considerably slows down performance.
Navigating the dark web can be difficult, because by its very nature the content it houses is not indexed. Unlike content on the surface web, you can’t find it through Google or Bing — that’s where dark search engines come in.
Dark search engines are designed to be used through Tor to find websites and pages, much like a regular search engine. However, don’t expect to get the same kind of service and wide-ranging results as you do on Google. Dark search engines are likely to turn up a much more limited number of most-visited dark web sites, and not all of these programs can be trusted to protect your data.
Sites are considered to be on the dark web if they cannot be accessed via regular browsers and web search engines.
People often imagine that dark websites are all automatically dangerous, criminal places, but that’s not really true. While much of the dark web does involve illegal and unsavory elements, any page that is not reachable through normal browsers could technically be said to be a part of it.
The terms dark web and deep web are often used interchangeably, and wrongly so. The confusion between the two can be attributed to their overlapping definitions. But, despite some of those overlaps, they refer to two different areas of the internet.
The deep web is all content online that isn’t part of the surface web; pages that aren’t indexed by standard search engines like Bing or Google. If you simply use Google to search for deep web content, you’ll get no results. Most of this deep web information is uninteresting and consists of data that is hidden behind a password or paywall. Some engines, like Dogpile, will even show deep web search results, but most of these types of engines have been acquired by bigger entities and are shut down or are defunct.
The dark web is generally a subset of the deep web. Dark web sites aren't indexed by ordinary search engines on the surface web either because they require special tools to access.
The dark web is a mixed bag. Though it has some legitimate uses, it can also be used for more nefarious or illegal purposes. For more detailed information about what you might find there, check out our dark web case study, where you can find out how much stolen data is sold for, among other things.
Some of the things you’ll find on the dark web include:
Unfortunately, the promise of encrypted online activity opens up avenues for illegal activity. Here are some of the illegal conduct criminals get up to on the dark web:
So is the dark web illegal? In most countries, it isn't. It can be used in legal or illegal ways, just like the regular internet – it simply depends on who's using it and what they're doing with it.
There are many threats and illegal activities that are associated with this the dark web, and earn it a reputation as a dangerous part of the internet.
To summarize, you use the dark web at your own risk. Because the dark web shields the identities of both users and website owners, there is little accountability. If a user or website you trust turns out to be malevolent and attacks you, there won't be much that can help you. On the other hand, it can be safer for whistleblowers, journalists or dissidents whose communications are being monitored by governments or other organizations. It depends on who you are, what you're doing, and how tech-savvy you are. Our general recommendation is to steer clear of it.
Instead of taking those risks, try using a VPN, or virtual private network. With an app like NordVPN, you can keep your data protected and secure online, without having to dive into the murky depths of the dark web.
The deep web is not illegal. Indeed, using the conventional surface web would be difficult without it. Pages like email inboxes and account management pages are all part of the deep web. Other deep web data is mostly irrelevant background data.
It is not illegal to be on the dark web. After all, it’s only meant to provide anonymity, and that isn’t illegal in most regions. However, its reputation for facilitating illegal activities may raise eyebrows, which is why it's often a better idea to steer clear.
We do not recommend accessing the dark web unless absolutely necessary. This is a risky area of the internet.
Access to the dark web requires a specific browser. The Tor network is the most popular tool. It works like a regular web browser but is much slower because of its multiple layers of encryption. If you’re trying to figure out how to search the dark web, you will also need a dark web search engine, like DuckDuckGo. DuckDuckGo is the go-to search engine for dark web users because it is one of the only engines that index .onion websites – the domain name suffix of all Tor sites. Otherwise, you'll only be able to navigate to sites if you know their actual address ahead of time.
Be aware that, since 2008 when access to the Tor browser was made available to everyone, there has been a noticeable growth in criminal behavior on the dark web. This, in turn, has led to the negative reputation that plagues the Tor network and everything dark web.
There are different reasons why people search for the dark web. As per the research conducted by NordVPN, 49% of all the Google search queries attributed to the dark web are simply trying to find ways to access it, while 50.2% of searchers are just trying to understand what the dark web is.
Just around 0.5% of queries (around 700 per month) are trying to check whether their personal data is for sale. And all these come from the US. A tiny 0.3% of searches coming from the UK and the US aim at acquiring illegal substances.
Half of Americans, Canadians and Britons are just trying to find out what the dark web is. India has an even higher percentage of such users, at 64.6%. In Brazil, 74.5% of users are trying to find out how to access the dark web.
Resorting to the dark web is like swimming in shark-infested waters with an open wound. Due to its unregulated nature, there's no telling what you'll encounter. Purchasing items on a dark web marketplace is a test of faith rather than a guaranteed cash-for-service transaction – you’re not dealing with a recognised company, there are no terms of service, and the seller can't be forced to send you what you purchased.
There is a better alternative to using the dark web for privacy. Download a VPN. Both can be used to navigate around censorship, whether corporate or government. But good VPN services don’t force you to browse at a snail’s pace to achieve online security.
NordVPN allows you to browse the internet in privacy, without any of the risks of inconvenience of the dark web. All the service requires is a subscription. NordVPN's iOS app also has the Dark Web Monitor feature which sends alerts if your credentials are exposed.
NordVPN's Threat Protection is another useful feature. It helps you avoid risky websites known for malware infection, and blocks trackers and intrusive ads.