The Dark Web is a lot like your regular, everyday World Wide Web, which you can safely browse to access websites. But there’s one big difference—mainstream search engines, such as Google, do not index sites on the Dark Web. That’s actually why this area is called “dark.”
What Is the Difference between the Dark Web and the Deep Web?
The Dark Web is often confused with the Deep Web, however, there is a distinction.
The Web is divided into three layers—the Surface Web, the Deep Web, and the Dark Web. The Surface Web consists of websites that are indexed by search engines like Google and Bing and can be accessed using regular web browsers.
Beneath this lies the Deep Web. Its content is not indexed by traditional search engines because viewing it entails authentication. Online bank account pages, travel itineraries, web forums that require registration, and email accounts are some of the examples of Deep Web content.
And then, at the very bottom lies the Dark Web, which evolved from the U.S. military’s The Onion Router (TOR) network. Websites on the Dark Web are not indexed by mainstream search engines and can’t be accessed through standard web browsers. More on it below.
How Did the Dark Web Start?
During the 1990s, the U.S. military needed a way for their spies to send back information safely. They built a network where data could be exchanged anonymously. Thinking that it would be more difficult for the enemy to identify coded messages from their agents, they shared the system with the general public and buried their ciphers within data from thousands of other users. This is how TOR began. The name refers to the technique of anonymizing data by applying layers of encryption—like the layers of an onion.
How Can You Access the Dark Web?
Websites in the Dark Web bear the .onion extension instead of the usual .com, .net, .org, or any of the other top-level domains (TLDs) we normally encounter on the Web. Beyond the domain extension, what makes them truly different from regular websites is that they are published anonymously.
In order to access these sites, you need a specific browser. The most popular one is called “Tor,” which operates within the TOR network we previously described. You use it just as you would use Chrome or Firefox. The difference is that Tor keeps you anonymous and hides your online activity from others. Alternatives for the Tor browser include Subgraph OS, Waterfox, I2P, Tails, and Whonix. These offer additional features not available in Tor.
What Can You Find on the Dark Web?
You will find two types of things here. First, there are forums, chat rooms, and file hosts for a wide variety of topics and interests. Some may seem odd and disturbing, such as creepy experiences shared on forums, others are entertaining like real-life scavenger games, for example. Nevertheless, there’s nothing maleficent here, just people using anonymity to freely express themselves.
The second type of thing you will encounter on the Dark Web are products and services you can buy. The merchandise can be frightening, as with the sites that advertise human body parts for sale. Others may be quite frivolous, as with the buyer who ordered a “mind-blowing experience” from a vendor and a few days later received a vacuum cleaner.
There are also websites and individuals who sell products or offer services that are outright malicious and illegal. You may encounter offers for drugs, guns, counterfeit products, stolen goods, and extreme pornography. Some advertise sketchy services that include launching remote access Trojans (RATs), keyloggers, and phishing attacks and stealing customer data and passwords. It’s also possible to find people here eager to conduct distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks, rent out botnets, and plant malware into target systems.
However, several legitimate companies have also opted to maintain a presence on the Dark Web. They do this to cater to people in locations where authoritarian governments curtail freedom of expression and limit access to information.
Is the Dark Web Unsafe?
Much of the Dark Web is considered unsafe. And even if users are careful and conscientious about their transactions, they could end up victims of some evil cons. There are plenty of stories about people who paid for something illegal only to be disappointed by what they got, if the goods were even delivered at all. A good example of this are the so-called “red rooms’” where scammers promise to feature humans or animals being tortured. The scenes often turn out to be staged, or the vendor disappears after receiving the payment.
What Threats Are on the Dark Web?
Questionable transactions and scams abound on the Dark Web, as previously mentioned. Aside from these, the Dark Web could also expose you to cyberthreats. Your identity may be hidden while using Tor, but it won’t make you safe from malicious actors.
Browsing the Dark Web could make you vulnerable to malicious software, such as keyloggers, and ransomware. These malware allow threat actors to gain access to your computer and even your home or work network. They could steal sensitive data, such as passwords, bank account details, and the like.
Many casual Dark Web visitors fall victim to attacks that turn their devices into bots for a malicious botnet, without them ever knowing what happened.
Some websites may even try to hijack your webcam by tricking you into allowing remote administration access. That allows hackers to see what you’re doing through your camera.
Of course, hackers and cybercriminals also abound on the Surface Web. However, they could be more difficult to evade on the Dark Web, especially since regulations do not rule it as they do the Surface Web.
Since many of the sites on the Dark Web promote criminal activity, it isn’t surprising to learn that law enforcers are present there, too. They intend to catch individuals engaged in contraband trade. You could get drawn into an investigation, or you may even be prosecuted for being associated with criminals, even if you haven’t done anything against the law yourself.
So if you are thinking of an excursion into the dark side of the Web, you’d better proceed with caution.