Disclaimer: The below is solely intended for informational purposes and in no way constitutes legal advice or specific recommendations.
Most people have heard of the dark web, but many don’t fully understand what it is, how information gets there, or how to access it.
Even if you’ve never browsed the dark web, it is something that the average person should care about. Increasingly frequent corporate data breaches expose millions of people’s personal information; the dark web is where all of that stolen information goes, and your private data may be being bought and sold for just a few dollars.
Whether you’re interested in using it yourself for anonymous web browsing or simply understanding it more to protect yourself from identity theft, here’s an overview of what the dark web is and how to access it.
What Is The Dark Web?
The dark web is a subsection of what’s known as the deep web: content on the World Wide Web that is hidden and not indexed on regular search engines. Dark web sites require specific software to access (more on that below).
While the “dark web” is often synonymous with “illegal online activity,” this part of the internet allows users to remain anonymous online and can be used for both legal and illegal purposes. Because it hides and protects users’ anonymity, a significant percentage of the dark web is devoted to criminal activity, ranging from purchasing drugs to viewing illegal pornography. In fact, it’s estimated that over half of the sites on Tor, the most popular method of accessing the dark web, are dedicated to illegal activity.
The concept of the dark web was developed by the US Navy in the mid-1990s as a means of protecting US intelligence communications online. Employees of the Naval Research Laboratory released The Onion Routing project, now known as Tor, in 1997. Tor conceals users’ locations by encrypting your IP addressing and routing it to different computers around the world.
Tor was then released into the public domain with the rationale that the more people use it, the more difficult it would be to discern US military communications from other people. Thus, the dark web was born and it quickly became a haven for people who wanted to hide something online, including criminals. Interestingly enough, Tor is primarily funded by the U.S. government.
How To Access Information On The Dark Web
The easiest and most popular method of accessing the dark web is the Tor network, though other networks are available. Tor is free software that anyone can download, which is the easy part. Once you’ve installed Tor, or another dark web browser, navigating the dark web is chaotic, slow and reminiscent of using the internet in the late ‘90s.
The major difference between browsing the dark web and the regular web is that the domain names are often unintelligible (a random combination of letters and numbers) and end in .onion, a nod to its origins. CSO notes that there are specific dark-web search engines, but they often yield “results that are repetitive and often irrelevant to the query,” or “return a frustrating number of timed-out connections and 404 errors.”
Is The Dark Web Just For Criminals And Illegal Activity?
While much of what happens on the dark web is illegal, it can also be used for positive purposes. Individuals may choose to use the dark web to circumvent censorship in countries that seek to limit their citizens’ internet usage, receive anonymous information from a whistleblower, or safely seek political asylum.
As the dark web becomes more mainstream, it has opened the doors for all sorts of activities, such as joining a chess club, listening to music specifically released on the dark web, or participating in forums to discuss current events. Even Facebook made its debut on the dark web in 2014.
Even though you’ll find plenty of regular, legal communities on the dark web, the anonymity it provides is likely to always attract criminals. Scammers can buy or sell your private information, such as your credit card number, bank account information, and social security number. It’s important to constantly remain vigilant and monitor your financial accounts and public records for signs of identity theft.