We often associate the dark web with something ominous and illegal, and not without reason.
The dark web lives on the darknet, a part of the internet accessible only to specific browsers or through special network configurations that provide user anonymity.
This Nira guide will explore the murky waters of the dark web to help you understand what it is, how to access it, and what to expect.
What is the Dark Web Anyway?
The dark web refers to a collection of hidden sites that aren’t indexed by search engines and can only be accessed through special authorization, browsers, or software.
As the name suggests, the dark web doesn’t refer to a specific site or page—it’s a type of network called a darknet. For instance, if you set up a private and secure network with a group of friends that isn’t accessible by normal internet browsers, it’ll be an example of a darknet.
The whole point of the dark web is to keep internet activity anonymous and private, which can be for both legal and illegal purposes. While some users use it to evade censorship, others use it for illegal activities.
Recently, people have started identifying the dark web as the hotbed of criminal activity, and there’s a reason for that.
In 2019, Dr. Michael McGuire conducted a study, Into the Web of Profit, which found that dark web listings that could harm an enterprise have risen by 20% since 2016. Moreover, about 60% of all listings (excluding those selling drugs) can potentially harm enterprises.
Dark Web vs. Deep Web
People frequently use the terms “deep web” and “dark web” interchangeably. They couldn’t be more wrong.
The deep web is the part of the internet that’s behind closed doors, consisting of databases and pages that are only meant for a specific group of people within an organization. This part of the internet rests below the surface and, like the bulk of an iceberg unseen underwater, actually accounts for 90% of all websites.
The deep web includes:
- Content that isn’t indexed
- Secure storage sites that can only be accessed with the proper credentials
- Intranets, i.e., private networks built by businesses, governments, and schools for organizational use
- Home pages of social media sites, streaming services, email servers, and banks that need a login
On the other hand, the dark web is a small subsection of the deep web. That’s why search engines don’t index material that’s on the dark web, and content there can only be discovered with search engines and browsers specifically designed to excavate these hidden sites.
No one knows the size of the dark web, but most experts estimate it to be about 5% of the total internet.
How the Dark Web Works
Many people use the Tor network to access the dark web.
Tor, short for The Onion Router, is one of the most well-renowned darknets that bounce information through a series of encrypted layers—similar to that of an onion—offering users anonymity when on the darknet. You’ll find many onion sites and services on the Tor network, having page addresses ending in .onion.
To access the dark web, you’ll have to download and install the free Tor browser. Yes, it’s completely legal, with the U.S. government being one of the major funders for the Tor project that’s responsible for creating the browser in the first place.
While downloading Tor is the easy part, you’ll have to find the onion site’s website address on your own. Spoiler alert: the names aren’t easy to remember. Here’s what the CIA’s onion address looks like: http://ciadotgov4sjwlzihbbgxnqg3xiyrg7so2r2o3lt5wz5ypk4sxyjstad.onion/
We’ll discuss how to access the dark web in more detail later on in the article.
What Can You Find on the Dark Web?
The dark web is always changing, and since it remains largely hidden, the things you find on it can be both helpful and risky.
Here is a list of some of the things you can find on the dark web.
You need the exact URL of a dark website to access it. As mentioned, these URLs are difficult to remember, being strings of random letters, numbers, and special characters.
Luckily, you can look up dedicated pages that make it easier to find what you’re looking for. These pages usually categorize dark websites as “onion rings“ that make it easier for you to browse through the list of links.
Dark Web Versions of Popular Websites
Many news websites (BBC), torrent sites (The Pirate Bay), and email services (ProtonMail) have onion websites. The idea behind these dark web versions is to provide people who can’t access the surface web version of the site access to the site.
For example, The New York Times: https://nytimes3xbfgragh.onion/
Unsurprisingly, the dark web is home to many black marketplaces. All kinds of goods are sold and bought here, ranging from Netflix accounts to drugs to weapons. The important thing to note is the existence of these markets is illegal.
Anonymity is highly valued in the circles, plus the fact that payment methods are mostly limited to cryptocurrencies ensures buyers are never identified.
Email services on the dark web make it mandatory to use Tor and only let you send emails to other Tor users.
For example, ProtonMail: http://protonmailrmez3lotccipshtkleegetolb73fuirgj7r4o4vfu7ozyd.onion/
File Uploads and Transfers
As the dark web provides several layers of encryption on both your files and connections, it’s a secure platform for file uploads and transfers. Many journalists and informants use the dark web to share files with sensitive information.
For example, ZeroBin: http://zerobinftagjpeeebbvyzjcqyjpmjvynj5qlexwyxe7l3vqejxnqv5qd.onion/
Journalists and whistleblowers use the dark web to leak or find sensitive information. Generally, people who want to report a company or the government for illegal acts use Tor to get information out to the public while staying anonymous.
For example, WikiLeaks network whistleblower Edward Snowden
Forums and Chat Boards
You’ll find several message boards and chat rooms on the dark web dedicated to topics that aren’t safe to discuss in other parts of the internet. As the topics of discussion are often dangerous, illegal, or unethical, it’s better to avoid visiting these websites or participating in such discussions.
Cybercriminals often hack into private systems illegally using methods like phishing and man-in-the-middle attacks to obtain sensitive information that’s then sold on the dark web.
Example: Hacker forums trade in stolen data, where they sell sensitive credit card numbers, passport data, and digital identities.
Is It Illegal to Access the Dark Web?
The legality of accessing the dark web varies from one country to another. For example, accessing the dark web is legal in the U.S. if you use Tor. However, if you use a VPN along with Tor, you may draw scrutiny from your ISP and the government.
Visiting the dark web is legal, but using it to engage in criminal activity certainly isn’t.
The biggest feature of the dark web is anonymous browsing. Many people take advantage of this to do illegal acts, but the same anonymity provides whistleblowers and activists much-needed protection. As such, dark web domains can be useful for those living in countries where free speech is limited or banned, plus for those wanting to share information without being prosecuted.
Essentially, the dark web is a double-edged sword. Is it legal? Accessing it is, depending on where you are. We recommend checking your local laws before visiting dark web domains using Tor or a VPN.
Dark Web Tools and Services
Browsing the dark web isn’t as straightforward as regular web surfing. You’ll need specific tools to chart your journey, as well as search engines and forums like Reddit to find reliable dark websites.
Dark Web Browsers
Tor is the standard dark web browser that directs your browser traffic through the Tor network, letting you reach the dark web. It’s also highly secure, thanks to the encryption and at least three relay points (also known as nodes) that are used to bounce information to obscure the origin of the data.
Dark Web Search Engines
You need specialized search engines to access dark web domains. DuckDuckGo is a popular privacy-focused dark web search engine that indexes pages on the dark web and is supported by the Tor browser.
Other than DuckDuckGo, you can try other search engines like Torch, Ahmia, and Not Evil. Alternatively, you can check out subReddit r/deepweb, where experienced users share information about safely accessing the dark web.
Dark Web Domains
The only way to visit dark websites is through the appropriate dark web browser. And since most of the dark web URLs are hard to remember, it’s better to use service websites like The Hidden Wiki that offers a collection of dark web links.
That said, not all the links work and are safe. Use the website to understand what kind of dark websites you like visiting—but never without reliable cybersecurity software to protect you from viruses and other threats.
How to Access the Dark Web Safely
As mentioned, the safest way to get on the dark web is through the Tor network. Below, we’ll show you how to use Tor to visit the dark web securely.
Step 1: Install Tor Browser
Tor Browser is a free browser that routes traffic through the encrypted Tor network. You can download Tor Browser from the official Tor Project website.
Downloading from unlicensed third-party sites can lead to viruses and malware. Therefore, they are definitely not worth the risk–so don’t try to download Tor anywhere else.
Step 2: Use Tor Browser to Browse the Dark Web
You can access the .onion domains through Tor Browser. But as the dark domain is largely regulated, avoid visiting dark web domains before verifying their authenticity.
Step 3: Protect Your Identity
While the dark web isn’t always dangerous, you can become a victim of scams.
When making purchases or communicating over the dark web, always use encrypted and anonymous email addresses. Similarly, it’s better to use a cryptocurrency wallet when making payments.
Note: You can also connect to a reliable and safe VPN to up safety levels, followed by using Tor in a practice known as Tor-over-VPN, but doing so can raise government scrutiny.
4 Additional Tips to Use the Dark Web Safely
Here are a few tips and guidelines to protect yourself when visiting the dark web:
- Protect yourself with smart behavior on the web. Not everyone is who they seem, so be careful about who you talk to and which websites you visit. Remove yourself from a situation immediately if something doesn’t feel right. Don’t be afraid to trust your intuition.
- Avoid dark web file downloads. The anonymity of the dark web makes the risks of malware infection significantly higher. To avoid repercussions, implement real-time file scanning from an antivirus program to check all incoming files before you hit download.
- Actively monitor identity and financial theft. Several online security services offer identity protection. Therefore, you have many options to protect yourself from falling victim to identity and financial theft when accessing the dark web.
- Separate your online persona from real life. Don’t use your real name, email address, password, or credit card anywhere on the dark web. Instead, create a throwaway account and identifiers. You can buy prepaid, unidentifiable debit cards to place orders.