The darknet refers to any private virtual network accessible only to a few select users. It traces its roots to the need for security, and as such, it lies “in the dark” and doesn’t appear on network lists.

In the early days, though, the darknet referred to networks outside the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET) that could receive messages but were unable to make any form of response. They couldn’t even acknowledge that the message was received, unlike Facebook Messenger or any chat app that can tag a message as “seen.”

These days, the term “darknet” has taken on a whole new meaning, and it isn’t called such for nothing.

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Darknet and Dark Web: What’s the Difference?

Darknet and Dark Web are often used synonymously, which is incorrect on a certain level. The two terms are different as the darknet refers to a network (like a community of computers), whereas the Dark Web refers to the websites on the darknet.

The Dark Web can only be accessed using darknet protocols such as The Onion Router (Tor). Tor has become almost synonymous with the Dark Web, too, but there are other darknet protocols you can use to access it. Some alternatives to Tor are the Invisible Internet Project (I2P), Freepto, and Freenet.

What can You Find in the Darknet?

You can find all sorts of things on the darknet, most of which you won’t encounter on the Surface Web. For instance, the darknet caught the attention of the public with the discovery of underground markets like Silk Road and Alpha Bay.

Come to think of it, the first-ever online transaction (a drug deal between Stanford and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) students) is a reflection of what the darknet is now. The deal, by the way, happened over ARPANET, which is the very basis of the Internet.

Drugs, illegal firearms, malware, stolen documents, and online credentials are among the items traded on the darknet. And even when darknet markets are taken down by law enforcement agencies, more seem to crop up. In fact, tons of them are still operating.

Of course, there are also legitimate things that happen within the darknet. There are support groups, regular goods for sale, and several people who want to access Facebook privately.

Why was the Darknet Created Anyway?

Before all the shady and illegal transactions came about, though, the darknet provided users with security and anonymity. In fact, the development of the Tor network was funded by the U.S. government initially for their own use. But later on, it was made public so whistleblowers, journalists, and government agencies can communicate anonymously.

So what happened? Now, criminals rode the tide and are using the darknet by creating websites to sell their products and services. And since it’s challenging to get rid of underground marketplaces on the darknet completely, law enforcers are also using the darknet to set up honey traps to catch these criminals.

Anonymity Networks for Accessing Darknet Sites

1. Tor

Tor is an overlay network created by the United States military in 2002. To access sites hosted on Tor nodes, you need to install its software. The origin and destination of queries coursed through Tor is indecipherable.  This means that both the user sending the requests and the site resolving it are not aware of each other’s identity or location. 

2. I2P

I2P is a clandestine peer-to-peer network that enables user access to Darknet sites through a “tunneling” mechanism. It accommodates standard internet protocols such as the Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP). 

3. Freenet

Freenet is another peer-to-peer network that protects users’ identity as they surf traditional websites hosted on its servers. Freenet caches data through decentralized network nodes; no single server stores the website’s files. 

4. Riffle

Riffle is an anonymity network designed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) as a response to the vulnerabilities present in the Tor network. Riffle works by randomly shuffling the order queries move between nodes to obfuscate their origins. 

5. Rogue TLDs

The internet uses the Domain Name Systems (DNS) to convert IP addresses into domain names. The conventional DNS we use is managed by Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). There are organizations, however, that operate their alternative DNS root server that facilitate communications between their custom TLDs. Darknet sites are hosted on some of these TLDs.