Just hearing the term Dark Web conjures up images of digital back alleys where people can engage in all sorts of illicit activities. We think of the stories we've heard in the news about strange (sometimes sick) individuals buying drugs, financial information, organs, or even people, through anonymous websites. And obviously, when we hear these stories, we automatically assume the Dark Web is something bad. But is that true?
In reality, the Dark Web is neither good nor bad. It was created with security and privacy in mind, and this has led many less-than-savory individuals to use it as a venue for their illegal activities. But there are a lot of reasons why someone would use the Dark Web, and a good many of them are actually legitimate.
Yet the Dark Web gets its reputation from the horror stories. And while this isn't totally unwarranted - there are plenty of reasons to be suspicious about someone who wants to hide their online activity - there is a lot more to the Dark Web than meets the eye. Here is everything you need to know about the Dark Web in 2019.
Some Stats about the Dark Web
What is the Dark Web?
The Dark Web refers to the collection of websites that cannot be indexed on traditional search engines. It is the opposite of the Surface Web, which is the version of the internet most of us are using right now, the one that can be indexed by Google, Yahoo, Bing, etc., and, perhaps more importantly, tracked.
People often use the analogy of an iceberg when talking about the Dark Web. The tip is the Surface Web, which represents just a small portion of the internet, and the rest of the iceberg, the part that's underwater that you can't see, is the Dark Web.
The Dark Web relies on what is known as "peer-to-peer" connections. This means data is not stored on one database like it is on the Surface Web. Instead, it's shared on thousands of different computers across the network, which makes it difficult to uncover the source. This is part of the reason why Dark Web websites are often used for illegal activity. One can load up content to the site, but there is no way of knowing from where you loaded up that content,
Furthermore, when you access the Dark Web, your IP address is encrypted, and so is that of the website you are accessing. Both are also rerouted to hundreds if not thousands of different servers, which provides users with complete anonymity. This is why you can access websites that sell all sorts of illegal goods without having to worry (too much) about someone finding out who you are.
Deep Web, Dark Web, Dark Internet
When talking about the Dark Web, a few terms - Dark Web, Deep Web and Dark Internet - are usually used interchangeably. They are similar concepts, but they are not the same things. To clear up some of the confusion, here are some definitions provided by Tech Advisor:
· Deep Web: This refers to all of the content on the internet that cannot be indexed by search engines. Dark Web websites are included in the Deep Web, but the Deep Web also includes databases, webmail pages, registration required web forums, and other forms of untracked internet communication.
· Dark Web: The Dark Web is made up of web pages that cannot be tracked or indexed by search engines but that also exists on a shared encrypted network. In this sense, the Dark Web is more connected than the Deep Web.
· Dark Internet: At first glance, you might think the Dark Web and the Dark Internet are the same, and while they are similar, they are not the same. The Dark Internet refers to web data that is specific to one particular niche that users want to keep private for one reason or another. In most cases, the Dark Internet is made up of raw data used by scientists and other researchers that they want to keep private and untraceable.
Why Do People Use the Dark Web
Given its anonymous and mysterious nature, it's easy to assume that the Dark Web only exists as a way of facilitating illegal activity. And while it's true that many use the Dark Web for this, there are other reasons. Here is a breakdown of the main reasons why people use the Dark Web:
High demand for drugs and the ease of the internet make the Dark Web a prime spot for the buying and selling of drugs. In fact, Dark Web experts believe Dark Web drug sales average about $100-150 million per year, and this is after major drug marketplaces such as The Silk Road have been shut down. It seems that every time the authorities shut one site down, another one pops up. This is not all that dissimilar to what happens in the real world; one drug gang goes down and another emerges.
However, what is interesting about these sites is that they operate much like any other eCommerce store. There are menus, catalogs, and reviews, which are meant to be a self-policing mechanism that ensures people are buying the products they want. But, unsurprisingly, these reviews are notoriously unreliable, largely because they are coming from anonymous users. Oh, and also because they have to do with illegal drugs....
In general, Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies are the preferred methods of payment as they provide the same level of anonymity as the Dark Web. Because of this, many people have unfairly labeled cryptocurrencies as the money of the world's underbelly, but this is an inaccurate depiction of this technology, something we'll discuss a bit later on.
Drugs aren't the only thing you can buy on the Dark Web. In fact, there are very few things you can't buy. For example, you can find sites selling anything from organs to firearms to stolen bank account information. Some sites even sell equipment which you can then use to commit crimes, such as ATM card readers that steal people's bank account information.
People will also sell you counterfeit money, ATM codes, and much more. Payment is also made in Bitcoin, but scams are frequent. Money is usually put into escrow until the transaction is complete, but it's common for crooks to shut down the site and deposit the escrow funds before sending off these products. The phrase "buyer beware" applies even more in Dark Web transactions.
Sadly, because of its secrecy, the Dark Web is a hotspot for things such as child pornography. According to the FBI, there are many websites that have hundreds of thousands if not millions of photos of children, and these sites are accessed by hundreds of thousands of individuals on a daily basis. Sometimes we like to laugh at the secret nature of the Dark Web, but things like this remind us that it's also a safe haven for some truly sick individuals.
One of the less sinister uses of the Dark Web is communication. Because users cannot be tracked, many people use the Dark Web as a way of getting around authoritarian governments who like to stick their noses into online forums and use what people say amongst themselves as punishment.
A good example of this was the crackdown on the use of VPNs in China that took place in 2015. This made it exceptionally hard for people in China to communicate with one another in private, and this led to an uptick of Chinese-language communication on the Dark Web.
There are countless examples of this type of communication taking place on the Dark Web. For example, BlackBook is a social network rather similar to Facebook that operates on the Dark Web, and Facebook even has its own Dark Web presence. As privacy becomes more of a concern in our digital world, more people may want to take advantage of the anonymity of the Dark Web.
Reporters and other journalists working on sensitive stories often use the Dark Web as a way to communicate with sources and also investigate information without risking being uncovered. In addition, many Dark Web news sites claim to offer a more independent and less biased version of world events. This is a prime example of how the Dark Web can be used for something good just as easily as it can be used for something bad.
Is the Dark Web Legal?
Judging by how many illegal things you can do on the Dark Web, it's completely legitimate to wonder if logging on to the Dark Web will get you into trouble. However, at the moment, using the Dark Web is completely legal. The network itself is not inherently bad, and, as mentioned, there are plenty of reasons to use it other than to buy drugs or other illegal items.
Of course, using the Dark Web instead of the Surface Web for everyday browsing might raise some eyebrows, and some may wonder where your tinfoil hat is, but you're technically not doing anything wrong in the eyes of the law.
How to Access the Dark Web
Now that you know what the Dark Web is and what it's used for, and now that you've been assured it's legal, you may be curious to check out what all the fuss is about with the Dark Web. Luckily, accessing it isn't all that difficult, but you might find it challenging to participate in Dark Web activities without the right connections and background.
The TOR Browser
The first thing you need to access the Dark Web is the TOR Browser. Known officially as The Onion Router, the TOR Browser is how the vast majority of the world accesses the Dark Web. It's so important because it provides the encryption needed to keep your identity anonymous and also to obscure the source of the information you are accessing.
The TOR Browser can be downloaded for free at www.torproject.org. Run the file and install it like you would any other download and then you're ready to surf the Dark Web. It feels too easy for something that can give you access to so many terrible things. But as we mentioned, there is nothing illegal about simply accessing the Dark Web or installing the TOR Browser.
Dark Web Websites
Once you've got the TOR Browser, you're ready to surf the Dark Web. However, surfing the Dark Web is not the same as surfing the Surface Web. There are no search engines to direct you to the pages where you can get the information you need; one of the defining characteristics of Dark Web websites is that they aren't indexed by search engines.
You can use the browser to access the same sites you access on the Surface Web, but you will likely run into two problems.
First, the sites will probably be very slow. The encryption process behind TOR, which generates a new IP address every time, brings download speeds to a crawl. Also, TOR disables things such as Java and Flash Plugins, which most websites use to function properly, so when the page does finally load, it might not work well.
Second, you may run into problems when trying to access sites that require you to log in. This is because when their servers see you signing in from different places all around the world (a trademark of TOR) they may identify this as suspicious activity and lock you out. However, since the primary purpose of TOR and the Dark Web is anonymity, you shouldn't be using it to log in to sites where you have an account that can identify you.
Dark Web URLs
As a result, to really use the Dark Web, you need to know the exact URL of the site you wish to visit. Most Dark Web sites use the URL suffix .onion, but this isn't necessarily the case. Furthermore, the URLs are also usually a random collection of letters and numbers which are very difficult if not impossible to remember, and they change frequently (the more illegal the activity, the more frequently the URL changes). The URLs for popular Dark Web sites, however, are often made public. You can find some of the better ones here, and if you're genuinely curious about exploring the bowels of the Dark Web, here is a list of some of the more infamous sites you can reach.
Be a Criminal
Since the Dark Web itself isn't illegal, it's of course not necessary to engage in illegal activity to use it. However, if you're looking to gain access to some of the Dark Web's underground activity, you're likely going to need to have permission to access a restricted site, and to get this permission, you need to prove you're not a cop or some other government authority looking to get on the inside and set up a bust. This usually means doing something illegal yourself to prove your actions back up your words. However, unless you go seeking out this type of activity on the Dark Web, it's unlikely you'll just stumble across it.
The Dark Web in the News
Most days come and go without us hearing a single word about the Dark Web, but then something big happens and it becomes headline news. Here are a few of the major events to take place that have helped the Dark Web gain fame:
The Silk Road
The Silk Road was one of the first online marketplaces where you could buy anything you wanted. And we mean anything. It helped demonstrate the power of the Dark Web in maintaining anonymity and in connecting individuals across the world. However, because of the wide variety of illegal substances sold on the Silk Road, which ranged from recreational drugs to assisted suicide medication, the authorities made it a target and in 2013 managed to bring it down. But when they did, the site was doing around $1.2 billion in business.
However, since this crackdown, several other marketplaces have launched to fill the void. They haven't reached the same volumes as the Silk Road, but they still move large amounts of money and drugs. Recently, the authorities shut down Silkktie and Wall Street Marketplace, two other large marketplaces. They also shut down a website that made it easier for people to find these illegal eCommerce websites by indexing URLs and putting them all in one spot.
The Silk Road was one of the first marketplaces to make exclusive use of Bitcoin, and part of the reason Bitcoin grew in value so quickly was because its anonymity and decentralization were ideal for those using The Silk Road and other illegal marketplaces.
This caused the authorities to then seek to regulate Bitcoin, a move which those in favor of cryptocurrencies claim was an attempt to stifle innovation and prevent Bitcoin from breaking the monopoly central governments currently have on currencies.
The pro-cryptocurrency argument is that the number one currency used for the buying and selling of illegal substances is US dollars, which goes to show that a currency itself is neutral. Instead, how you use it decides whether it's moral or not, an argument that can easily apply to the Dark Web as a whole.
Although the Snowden story doesn't directly relate to the Dark Web, it helped raise some interesting questions about the Dark Web and also personal privacy. For those who don't know, Edward Snowden was an NSA security advisor who leaked large amounts of information about the surveillance projects the US government was running on its citizens.
When he did this, he instantly became a hero and an enemy with some claiming he put national security at great risk and others saying he was a noble whistleblower. But to collect, store, and share the information he gathered, Snowden used the Dark Web, and depending on which side of the debate you stand on, this is either an argument for the value of the Dark Web or for its danger. We'll leave it up to you to decide.
The Future of the Dark Web
In an attempt to curb the drug trade and other crime, governments around the world are dedicating more and more resources to tracking down the people behind illegal Dark Web websites and shutting them down. However, no matter how hard they try, new sites always emerge. Yet it is difficult to say what this means for the future of the Dark Web.
As mentioned, there are many other reasons for using the Dark Web than to engage in illegal activities, and as privacy concerns become greater in our highly-digital, Orwellian world, more and more people may seek the anonymity provided by the Dark Web. But it's equally possible people will gladly accept more surveillance and less privacy in exchange for the illusion of safety and security.
However, no matter what happens in the future, the Dark Web in 2019 remains a murky underbelly of the internet, which many will argue is exactly what it's supposed to be.