Unbeknownst to the millions of people who use the internet everyday, most of the information available on the web is actually inaccessible to the general public, buried deep down on websites and unavailable for indexing by standard search engines like Google. According to some estimates, just 4% of all information available on the web is actually accessible by the general public, while a whopping 96% of the content remains out of the reach for most of us. This part of the internet that’s invisible to the general public, is known as the ‘Deep Web’, and for the most part, it includes private and confidential databases, including emails, financial statements, medical records and other such documents that need to be kept away from the prying eyes of search bots for obvious reasons.
However, the Deep Web also includes other content that exists on overlay networks, like darknets that can be accessed only with specialized software that have been configured specifically for the purpose. This is exactly where the Dark Web comes in. So without any further ado, let’s take a look at what the Dark Web is and how you can access it:
What is the Dark Web and How Is It Different From Deep Web?
While many people use the terms Deep Web and Dark Web interchangeably, the two are far from synonymous. That’s because the Dark Web is actually a (very small) subset of the Deep Web and includes censor-resistant platforms, like Tor, Freenet and I2P (Invisible Internet Project). A huge majority of websites on the Dark Web are on the Tor platform, and have .onion as their top-level domain (TLD). Those on the I2P platform, meanwhile, have .i2p as their top-level domain name. While accessing the first lot is relatively easier, it’s the I2P-based sites that are a little trickier.
Often called the modern Wild West, the Dark Web is a completely different sub-system that’s far-removed from the regular ‘surface web’ that you and I access everyday. It has its own search engines, the most famous being ‘Grams’ that looks and feels a bit like Google, and is even referred to as the ‘Google of the Dark Web’ by fans and critics alike.
The Dark Web has many aspects, but most of the mystery and intrigue surrounding the platform has to do with all the news about the hidden marketplaces that are said to sell everything from AK-47 assault rifles to banned narcotics and psychotropic substances. You can also reportedly find hitmen for hire on controversial Dark Web marketplaces, the most infamous and notorious of which, Silk Road, was shut down by U.S. law-enforcement agencies in 2013, but we’ll get to the details in a while.
It is ironic that U.S. government agencies today are at the forefront of an escalating war against the Dark Web, because the Tor network that forms the single largest chunk of the Dark Web, was actually developed by U.S. military researchers back in the 1990s. The technology was originally meant for exclusive use by the country’s intelligence establishment, so that their operatives in various parts of the world can send and receive information in complete anonymity. However, the software was eventually released to the public because the powers-that-be believed it would be better for the anonymity of the intelligence operatives if more people were using the service, so that their own communication would be drowned out amidst all the chatter and the white noise.
How To Access The Dark Web
Accessing the Dark Web is a fairly simple process once you know how to. As mentioned earlier, there are multiple different networks that form the Dark Web, so the process will vary depending on which sites you’re trying to access. For the purpose of this article, we’ll take a look at how to access sites on the Tor network that hosts over 90% of the sites on the Dark Web.
- To Access the Tor-based Dark Web sites, all you’ll need is a piece of specially-curated open source software called ‘Tor’ that you can download from torproject.org. There are two ways to go about it, though. You can download just the Tor software, but then you’ll need to configure it exactly right for it to work the way it was intended to. Hence, you’d be better off downloading the Tor Browser Bundle, which contains the Vidalia Control Panel along with a modified version of the Mozilla Firefox browser.
- All you now need to do is run the .exe file to install the software on your computer, and you’re good to go. Every time you want to connect to Tor, just double click on the Tor Browser shortcut icon, wait a while for the network to get up and running.
- Once everything is set, a browser window will open up for you automatically, and you will be able to surf the web in complete anonymity.
One thing to remember, though, is that you’ll need to know the URLs of websites on the Dark Web to be able to use the platform effectively, as not all those websites are indexed even on specific, purpose-built search engines. What’s worse is that unlike the regular website URLs that are meant to be remembered, the .onion addresses are intentionally devised to be painfully long strings of apparent gibberish that nobody in their right mind will even think about memorizing.
In case you don’t have a treasure trove of Dark Web URLs with you (and chances are, you don’t), we suggest you use the preeminent Tor-based Dark Web search engine called Grams (onion link). You can also go to aggregation sites like The Hidden Wiki that catalogues a lot of the Dark Web sites, but be careful about which links you click on, because, many of those are dangerously NSFW (and worse). There are also many threads on subreddits like r/deepweb and r/DNMsuperlist that have tons of Dark Web links, so you could check them out as well.
If all you want to do is explore Tor-based websites on the Dark Web, you may also use a Linux distro called Tails that’s built upon Debian and actually routes all traffic through Tor by default.The OS can be booted directly from a USB stick, so even if something does go wrong, all you’ll need to do is reboot or even re-format the USB drive to get over the problem.
The Controversies Surrounding The Dark Web
There are many legitimate uses of the Dark Web, but as mentioned earlier, it also helps criminals hide their identity while carrying out their nefarious activities. No wonder then that law enforcement agencies from around the world have dedicated units within their cyber-crime divisions to monitor these potentially dangerous places on the web that often harbor drug traffickers, gun runners, money launderers, terrorists and pedophiles.
As briefly touched upon earlier, the biggest, baddest and most infamous of all the illegal marketplaces running on the Dark Web was Silk Road. The site, often referred to as the ‘eBay of drugs’, was launched in 2011 by Ross William Ulbricht, who went by the pseudonym ‘Dread Pirate Roberts’ on the controversial marketplace. It gained popularity fairly quickly, and soon became the go-to place on the internet for buying and selling banned narcotics. Once the site was shut down by the FBI in October 2013, some of the administrators resurrected it the very next month as Silk Road 2.0. However, even that didn’t last very long, with the FBI managing to shut it down the following year. Ulbricht was prosecuted and convicted in 2015 for his role in facilitating the functioning of the illegal marketplace, and was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.
Funnily enough, a website called ‘Silk Road Reloaded’ sprung up on the Dark Web just hours after Silk Road 2.0 was shut down, although, on the I2P network instead of Tor. Since then, many more marketplaces have popped up, each with more sophisticated encryption than the other. The largest and the best known Dark Web marketplace right now is the ‘AlphaBay Market’ that has upwards of 225,000 listings including over 150,000 for drugs. Basically, whether you want a forged passport or a few grams of crystal meth, an assault rifle or plastic explosives, the Dark Web has slowly but surely become the go-to place if you’re looking for complete anonymity.
In fact, the Dark Web has also been a fertile playground for cyber criminals, who’ve often bought and sold hacked personal info and other compromising details about millions of people through the various online marketplaces that exist in this dark underbelly of the world wide web. Cyber security researchers also believe that many types of malware are also routinely traded on the Dark Web, including some of the most dangerous ransomware in recent memory, like Karmen, FrozrLock and even Petya 2.0 (also confusingly known as NotPetya).
Is Dark Web Illegal? Could Accessing The Dark Web Land You In Jail?
The short answers? No and no. The Dark Web is not illegal in most countries and merely accessing it won’t land you in jail. It’s what you do once you’re in there that may, potentially, land you in hot water depending on your local law. So long as you don’t buy or sell illicit substances or devices, don’t download any banned imagery, and stay away from the sites that host illegal content, like terrorist propaganda, human trafficking and pedophilia, you don’t have anything to be afraid of, although, you’d still do well to check the local laws in your region before you venture out in that direction. We’d also advise you to take the following precautions before you started browsing the Dark Web.
The Precautions You Should Take While Accessing The Dark Web
First off, contrary to popular belief, Tor itself isn’t anonymous enough, and won’t stop either the bad guys from targeting you, or the law enforcement from tracking you if they thought you were a ‘Person of Interest’. So to preserve your anonymity online, you’ll also need to use a VPN service, many of which are available for free. However, make sure you pick one that doesn’t keep any logs related to traffic, session, DNS or metadata. Personally, my personal favorite is Cyberghost, but there are many other excellent services that you can subscribe to, so just hop over to our most recent list of the best VPN services to find one that tickles your fancy.
You may also want to use either disposable emails IDs or encrypted e-mail services as an added layer of protection. Also, as mentioned earlier, don’t download anything on the Dark Web unless you know exactly what you’re doing, or at least test your file at VirusTotal before opening it on your computer.
Taking these precautions is expected to preserve your anonymity online for the most part, but the best protection you’ll ever have, whether on the Dark Web or the regular one, is your own common sense. And always remember that old adage – if something seems too good to be true, it probably is.
The Bright Side Of The Dark Web
The Dark Web has received a lot of bad press over the past few years, but much of its infamy comes from alarmist reportage by sections of the mainstream press with little or no understanding of how the technology even works and why many activists, reporters, researchers and whistle-blowers truly need the anonymity it provides. WikiLeaks, the site often used by whistle-blowers from around the world to reveal illegal government activity, originally started off on the Dark Web. Even Facebook launched a Dark Web site last year that can only be accessed via Tor, so that users can avoid being tracked by repressive regimes.
Reporters sans Frontières (Reporters without Borders) have described Tor as an essential ‘survival kit’ for its members and activists in countries run by authoritative regimes. The service is also recommended by major human rights organizations, like Global Voices, Human Rights Watch and International Broadcasting Bureau, which runs Voice of America and Radio Free Asia. Cyber security researchers also use Tor to test firewalls and provide emergency services in case of DNS failures.
In fact, the U.S. government, a vocal critic publicly of anonymizing services, is indirectly providing Tor with over 50% of its funding. While more recent data is unavailable, back in 2013, the Tor project received over $1.8 million from various organizations directly patronized by the U.S. government. The project received $555,000 from a non-profit human rights group called Internetwork News that’s funded by the US State Department and over $830,000 from an US Department of Defense-funded non-profit research institute called SRI International.
The Dark Web: Separating Hype from Reality
The Dark Web is far from the degenerate hellhole that some alarmist media reports have made it out to be. Sure, it is a bit of a Wild West insofar as it does have a lot of extra-legal (and indeed, outright illegal) stuff going on, but the anonymity that Tor provides is often literally a matter of life and death for many. For the rest of us, the hidden web is still a great resource to explore, and navigating through it can be a huge eye-opener even for seasoned netizens.
So now that you have an idea about the Dark Web and how it differs from the Deep Web, do give it a go, because you’ll be surprised to know how thriving the Dark Web community is, and how passionate they are about their privacy and anonymity online, and not just because they have something to hide. Once you’ve had a look around the Dark Web, do leave your thoughts in the comments section below, because we love hearing from you.