What is the dark web and how does it work?

Maybe you’ve seen a movie scene where hackers swap secrets on the dark web or read a news report about a drug ring that operates through a darknet site. But what exactly is this dangerous-sounding corner of the internet? Where can it be found and is it only used by criminals? Today, our blog sheds some light on the dark web.
by Alyssa Schmitt
Hooded figure with dark face stands in dark room
There are many dangers lurking on the dark web

Dark web definition

As the name suggests, the dark web operates in the shadows. Hidden from clear view, it is a part of the internet that can only be accessed using special browsers, and the identity of its users is anonymized. When people access the dark web, they use special software to encrypt the flow of data and reroute it several times to disguise its destination as well as its origin.

The anonymous nature of the dark web makes it ideal for illegal online activities. It has become known as a place to buy, sell, and trade illicit goods such as illegal drugs, weapons, and pornography. The dark web is also used as a secret and secure communications platform for criminals such as hackers and terrorists. Since cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin are also difficult to trace, the majority of transactions on the dark web are paid for this way.

What is the dark web vs the deep web? 

You may have heard people throw around the terms “dark web” and “deep web” as though they are interchangeable, but, in fact, they are very different things. The deep web is simply the part of the internet that is not publicly accessible or searchable, in contrast to the “surface web” that is open to all. The dark web is in turn made up of specially encrypted parts of the deep web.

In other words, the internet consists of:
  • The surface web: Many of us use the internet every day to search for information, read the news, shop, etc. These activities take place on what is called the “surface web” - also known as the “open web” or the “visible web”. Content on the surface web can be found using Google, Bing, and other search engines because it is “indexed” – i.e., listed in an organized index or directory of a search engine. It is estimated that the surface web only makes up 5 to 10 percent of the total internet.
  • The deep web: A much larger part of the internet is made up of sites that are online but not open to the public. These pages are usually private because they contain personal or proprietary data: institutional databases, company intranets, email and messaging services, financial accounts, etc. Pages on the deep web are not identifiable by search engines. Anyone who knows the exact URL of such pages could theoretically access them – however, they are often protected by passwords and other forms of security. The majority of deep web sites are used for completely aboveboard purposes.
  • The dark web: A subset within the deep web, dark web sites can also not be found using a normal search engine. In addition, the dark web is characterized by the use of special encryption technology to keep users and locations anonymous, which is why it is often used for illegal activities. These dark web sites represent an extremely small portion of the deep web.

How does the dark web work?

Every computer or other device we use to go online has an IP address that identifies it. Since people using the dark web do not want to be traced, they use dedicated software that anonymizes the IP address of their device. Furthermore, dark web sites cannot be found using standard search engines or browsers. Instead of ending in ".com" or another familiar domain name extension, the URL of a dark web site will have one that matches the software needed to access it; e.g. it might end in ".onion" for “The Onion Router”. So, if you are wondering how to access the dark web, the answer is that you need a special browser and software.

One of the most common ways to access dark web sites is through Tor, a network that anonymizes user data. It works with a system of encrypted servers, known as “nodes.” Each node that relays data in the network only knows the identity of the previous and next node in the chain, which makes it nearly impossible to trace the entire path followed by the data.

Good to know: What is the Tor browser?

Although it is sometimes known as the “dark web browser”, the acronym TOR actually stands for “The Onion Router.” This is because, like an onion, its network of virtual tunnels consists of different layers. Data traffic is encrypted and rerouted several times, ensuring the anonymity of the users. Although this makes the Tor browser useful for masking shady activities, it is also used to protect privacy, avoid censorship, etc. Millions of people use Tor every day to browse all parts of the internet – both the surface web and the dark web.

Is the dark web only used for crime?

Despite all the negative aspects mentioned above, the dark web does not have its roots in criminality. The Tor browser was originally developed by the US Naval Research Agency in 2002 to protect the identity of intelligence operatives when using the internet. The software was made open source a few years later. Because of its effectiveness in protecting anonymity, it is also used by political dissidents who face repression in their country, journalists looking to protect their sources, privacy advocates, whistleblowers, and others looking for strict online secrecy.

Is the dark web illegal?

Because it offers secrecy and anonymity, the dark web often serves as a black market for illegal goods of all kinds (e.g., child pornography, forged documents, or narcotics). Nevertheless, simply accessing the dark web is not illegal in most countries, and anyone with the right software and know-how can do it. What will get you into trouble with the law is going to the dark web and then downloading or sharing illegal content or paying for illegal goods or services.

However, even if you are just curious and want to see what is on the dark web, or go there for non-illicit purposes, you should keep in mind that the dark web is an unregulated space. You may be dealing with criminal organizations, exposing your device to malware, etc. – so you should always exercise caution.

We hope this post answered all your questions about what the dark web is and how it works. Stay safe out there! And if you still don’t have a mail.com account, why not sign up for free today?

Images: 1&1/Shutterstock

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