What is the Dark Web: Complete Explanation
The dark web refers to a part of the internet consisting of hidden sites that can only be found through specific browsers. The sites allow users to browse anonymously, and unlike the conventional websites, sites on the dark web are guarded by encryption software such as the Tor browser.
The dark web does not rely on the information available on search engines. It uses content from individual accounts like email, social media, and company databases. There is so much secrecy in the dark web, making it a haven for illegal and unethical activities such as illegal drug sales, illicit pornography, stolen credit cards, and the exchange of stolen data.
While the dark web has provided a platform for illegal transactions, it also provides an outlet for people who fear political persecution to communicate with each other, helps journalists conceal their identity and that of their sources, and enables people to seek medical advice anonymously.
Dark Web: An Exact Definition
The dark web is a series of websites on the internet that require specific authorization or encryption to access. Search engines do not index the content on the dark web, allowing people to communicate and transact anonymously. Unlike the traditional websites where the content is indexed, everything in the dark web is decentralized. To access an address in the dark web, you will need onion-type links composed of numbers and letters, followed by a .onion extension.
Given its anonymous nature, the dark web has a reputation for illicit and illegal activities such as buying and selling of illegal drugs, weapons, passwords, social security numbers, credit and debit cards, stolen identities, counterfeit goods, human trafficking as well as trading of illegal pornography and other potentially harmful and disturbing materials. However, besides illegal and criminal activities, you’ll also come across online versions of books that have long been out of print, a collection of political reporting from mainstream news sites, and several sites run by whistleblowers looking to expose corporate and government corruption.
When people log in to the internet through their computers or devices, they obtain a unique online identity based on the device’s IP (Internet Protocol) address. The IP address is what ensures the information reaches its intended destination. To track a person’s online activity, you only need to have their IP address, and you can gather as much information you want about their internet use. The dark web uses complex mechanisms to hide a user’s actual IP address so that it becomes difficult to identify the sites a device visited. One of the commonly used anonymizing software is called Tor (The Onion Router).
The name onion originates from the way the software functions. Tor wraps the sender’s message in encryption layers like those of onions and relays it through nodes—computers operated by other Tor users. As the message goes through the nodes, a layer of encryption is removed before proceeding to the next more. This makes it difficult to trace the message’s origin and the sender.
Unlike the traditional websites where the content is indexed, everything in the dark web is decentralized. To access an address in the dark web, you will need onion-type links composed of numbers and letters, followed by a .onion extension. Before accessing the dark web, you need to do the following:
A VPN or a Virtual Private Network is crucial when accessing the dark web. Although you can freely surf on this internet space as long as you are not engaging in illegal activities, casually browsing on the dark web may land you in trouble with the authorities. They may intercept your connection request and conduct searches in your house if you are up to unlawful engagements. With a VPN, you will enjoy a secure connection and enjoy the freedom of surfing anonymously.
When searching for things on the dark web, avoid using your default browser. Most of them have tracking technologies, making it easy for authorities to monitor your activities. To keep your anonymity, you can download Tor. It is arguably the safest and easiest to use the browser for accessing the dark web. When you connect to VPN before using a Tor browser, a method known as Tor over VPN, Tor encrypts your request, and as it passes through a VPN server, the IP address is concealed, then the request is transferred to multiple Tor nodes before it’s matched to the right website. The anonymity of a Tor browser and the privacy of a VPN guarantee a more effective way to access the dark web.
Containing malware in a virtual environment is much easier than in locally installed Windows hence the need to install VMs when accessing the dark web. There are plenty of VMs you can use, such as Microsoft Hyper-V, Oracle VM Virtualbox, Red Hat Virtualization, among others. You can also use disposable operating systems to eliminate physical storage devices. You can quickly get rid of the OS if you run into trouble.
After installing and configuring Tor, you can now go ahead and browse. Although the content here is not indexed, search engines such as the Hidden Wiki and Grams are a great place to start exploring the dark web. While the dark web is mainly known for illegal activities, it also has valuable sides such as online stores, email services, social media and journalism, and advocacy groups.
When shopping on the darknet, you should avoid using your credit or debit cards for purchases. Also, avoid websites that look fishy to avoid ending up in the middle of a mess. Remember, some of the channels are under watch because of the criminal activities in the darknet.
The dark web was a creation of the US government to give spies a platform for exchanging ideas anonymously. The Onion Router or Tor technology was brought to life by the US military and later released for public use in 2004. With other people on board, it could make it impossible to identify the messages between spies, making it easy for them to remain anonymous. The Onion routing technique makes websites anonymous through layers of encryption. Like in the open web, websites in the dark web are created and managed by groups or individuals, and not every website is for illegal activities.
Tor is still available today and is one of the best browsers used to access the dark web.
The rise of Bitcoin and other forms of cryptocurrencies have made the dark web more popular because people, primarily criminals, can sell and purchase items on the dark web anonymously using digital currencies.
The dark web has a wide variety of hidden sites. Given its anonymous nature, the dark web has a reputation for illicit and illegal activities such as buying and selling of illegal drugs, weapons, passwords, social security numbers, credit and debit cards, stolen identities, counterfeit goods, human trafficking as well as trading of illegal pornography and other potentially harmful and disturbing materials. It is also a haven for hackers to share techniques on data breaches and cyber security attacks. However, it also hosts harmless activities and content, and many legitimate organizations also run sites on the dark web.
Besides illegal and criminal activities, the darknet, you’ll also come across online versions of books that have long been out of print, a collection of political reporting from mainstream news sites, and several sites run by whistleblowers looking to expose corporate and government corruption. Here are some of the main applications of the dark web:
There are different reasons why people protect their online identities. In some cases, they would be in danger or at risk if their identities are exposed – for instance, in countries where the government forbids all means of communication and sharing of information, refugees or political outcasts seeking to link up with the outside world.
Others may use it to reduce their risk of falling victim to crime, such as people who have been cyberstalked or who are concerned about the security of online banking.
The layered encryption system in the Tor browser makes it impossible to track the identity and location of the users. People can share files, talk, and blog in a highly encrypted environment anonymously.
In a Hidden Service (also known as an ‘onion service’), both users and the website have their anonymity protected by Tor. This way, the site’s IP address remains unknown, meaning that information about its host, geolocation, or content is invisible. In clear web, the website name mostly ends with .org, .com,.gov, .edu. But in Hidden Services, the website name often ends .onion. That’s why they are sometimes called “onion addresses.”
Although Tor itself is not a Hidden Service, the sites it hosts are. Not all Hidden Services are used for unlawful purposes. Members of the public can anonymously whistleblow or share sensitive and confidential information such as knowledge of corruption activities and crime without the risk of reprisals. However, it is generally believed that most Hidden Services contain illicit material. Most of these sites require registration with username and passwords to authorize access. Others have ‘VIP’ sections, explicitly created for approved members and accessible only by an invite from the administrators.
The Dark Web has widely been known to be a haven for criminal activities. The secrecy and the privacy surrounding the dark web-enable hackers to trade secrets and stolen card numbers, criminals to sell and purchase weapons, drug dealers to trade drugs, and child pornographers to trade child pornography. All these activities and the sites offering them fall under the Hidden Services Category.
Examples of Dark Web in the Real World
Facebook recently introduced a darknet version of its website, accessible over the Tor network. Hidden Facebook provides access for people in countries that restrict it, like China and Iran, and also facilitates anonymous tips submission and communication. Other social media clients on the dark web include:
- Lucky Eddie’s Home
- The Campfire
- MadIRC Chat Server
When the Bitcoin software was released to the public in 2009, it was a significant milestone in the dark web because it gave users the chance to purchase items anonymously.
The launching of the Silk Road online marketplace in 2011 was big for drug dealers. The internet, Tor browser, and Bitcoin allowed people to purchase illegal drugs, transact hacked passwords, illegal data, and other contraband anonymously. However, it didn’t last long. In 2013, law enforcement officers shut down the site permanently, seized more than 144,000 bitcoins (then valued at $34 million), and arrested several users of the site, including the founder, Ross Ulbricht, who made about $80 million in commissions from transactions carried out within the site. Ulbricht was convicted in 2015 and is currently serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole. After that, other online marketplaces have come up on the dark web to replace it. Some include AlphaBay, Dream Market, Hansa, and Wall Street Market. Most of them end up being shut but more keep resurfacing.