What is the Dark Web?
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What is the Dark Web?

The dark web is the place where the search engines can’t find you

When most people hear “Dark Web” it strikes up about the same understanding as the phrase “black market.” And that’s actually appropriate because on today’s internet, the dark web functions in many ways as a black market. But what is the dark web, exactly? Who uses it? How does it work?

We’ll cover all those questions and more today as we Hash Out: what is the dark web?

What is the Dark Web?

The dark web is made up of content and sites that exist on darknets, or overlay networks that use the internet but require the use of specific software and configurations to access.

The best metaphor I’ve seen for explaining the surface web vs. the deep web vs. the dark web is an iceberg. With the iceberg example, you have the very small portion of the berg that exists above the water – which is visible to everyone – and that’s the surface web or clear web.

It’s sometimes referred to as clear because of the level of transparency available there. Though the surface web is taking steps to remedy this, the general lack of encryption means that your activity can be tracked as if it’s occurring in broad daylight. Additionally, everything on the Clearnet is very easy to find because it’s all capable of being indexed by search engines.

what is the dark web

And being indexed is a big deal. That’s what divides the 5-10% of the web you can see, the Clearnet, from the 90-95% you can’t, the deep web.

What is the Deep Web?

The Deep web is just the portion of the internet that exists beyond the reach of search engines. If you think about how you use the internet, your browser serves as your de facto portal to the web and everywhere you go is by virtue of search, entering the URL yourself or clicking a link. This is how search engines crawl the web, too.

However, there exists a ton of walled off content online, too. Pages, domains, internal networks and other IPs that exist beyond the reach of standard search. This is the deep web.

This is not, however, the dark web. The dark web is a part of the deep web, yes, but the dark web exists on networks that can only be reached by the use of specific software that obscures both user identities and the identity of the host.

What is on the dark web?

The dark web, despite its name and its reputation, is not inherently dark. Sure you can find online black markets where you can purchase illegal drugs, weapons and possibly even traffic in people. But there are also plenty of normal, legitimate things on the dark web, too. Things like book clubs and social networks.

But let’s be honest, you’re not here for any of that. The biggest selling point of the dark web is anonymity, so pretty much anything you would want to purchase or consume anonymously is right there at your fingers tips. Whether that’s conducting an illicit arms deal or just watching some really messed up porn, it’s all right there. Well, provided you know where to look.

what is the dark web?

But, before you think about sneaking on to the dark web to buy that bindle of Peruvian meth you’ve been eying, bear in mind. The authorities may be watching, too.

Who uses the Dark Web?

Because of the dark web’s layers of anonymity, it is used for a number of purposes by a whole range of different people. Of course, you have your criminal enterprises, using it to sell weapons, drugs, stolen personal credentials, launder money, etc.

It’s also used by pedophiles to share child pornography, and there are plenty of reports and stories about hitmen for hire, sex trafficking, and kidnapping, too.

But, again, let’s be realistic. While that exists the dark web is also used for legitimate purposes as well. For instance, many journalists use it to communicate with sources, or with one another, in dangerous areas of the world where press freedoms are under siege. Edward Snowden famously used to the dark web to leak information about the NSA spying on US citizens. The dark web can also be a tool for good to combat severe censorship in some cases, too.

How do I access the Dark Web?

Again, we really don’t suggest taking tourist trips to the dark web unless you know what you’re doing. Could you log on, look around and get off scot-free? Sure. It’s not illegal to go to the dark web, after all. Just bear in mind that the dark web is the true wild west of the internet.

In order to access the Dark Web you’re going to need to download a specialized browser. There are several like Freenet and I2P, but the most popular is Tor.

what is the dark web?

Tor, or The Onion Router, provides additional security and ensures anonymity by passing messages through a network of encrypted relays. I could write an entire article on the encryption technique behind Tor (and one day I will) but for now just know that the encryption keeps you anonymous. A site can’t track a visitor’s location or IP and the visitor can’t get information about the host.

Rather than traditional URLs, Tor uses onion addresses that end in the TLD “.onion.” Again, these websites are not indexed by traditional search engines. You literally have to know where to find these sites using the right browser and the right host name.

Dark Web Search Engines

The darknet isn’t indexed by traditional search engines, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t search engines for the dark web. They may work a little differently, consider them more like directories, but it’s a better way to get around than flying blindly.

Here are some of the more well-known Darknet Search Engines:

  • Torch
  • DuckDuckGo
  • Onion URL Repository
  • Uncensored Hidden Wiki
  • The WWW Virtual Library
  • notEvil

How do you buy things on the Dark Web?

Cryptocurrencies are the economic backbone of the dark web, specifically Bitcoin. It’s very difficult to track Bitcoin transactions when they are sent through “mixing services” like Bitcoin Laundry. A cryptocurrency is a decentralized digital currency that can be exchanged online for goods and services.

what is the dark web?

The cryptocurrency can then be sold legitimately for real world currency or converted to another format and then converted to real world cash. For instance, a United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime research report showed an example of the latter approach in a money laundering scheme. The cryptocurrency was converted to gold coins in the videogame World of Warcraft and then converted back into money.

In 2015, The Economist estimated that an illicit drug market worth about $150-180-million USD had developed on the dark web and the majority of it was being done in bitcoin.

Famous Dark Web Stories

There are a handful of fairly famous Dark Web stories that have helped to build the reputation of the dark web into what it is today. Some of them are legitimately creepy, others are probably a bit overblown.

Ross Ulbricht a.k.a. Dread Pirate Roberts

Ulbricht is currently serving a life sentence after being convicted of running Silk Road, a now infamous darknet black market that sold drugs, weapons and plenty of other illegal items, as well as information. Ulbricht’s life sentence is owed partially to the fact the attempt to put out hits on several people he suspected of turning over information on him (none were successfully completed) and also to send a message to other would-be drug kingpins. It didn’t work…

Chloe Ayling

Ayling was a 20 year-old British model that was lured to Milan under the guise of a photoshoot and was then abducted by a notorious sex trafficking gang, held captive for six days and then drugged and auctioned off on… you guessed it, the dark web.

The Alphabay/Hansa Sting

Over the summer, Dutch authorities, working in conjunction with other international policy authorities, helped to shut down two of the biggest darknet markets on the dark web, in Alphabay and Hansa. It went down like this, authorities were able to take over Alphabay and shut it down, under some rather mysterious circumstances, too, which caused an influx of business into the next biggest darknet black market, Hansa. But Dutch authorities had taken down Hansa weeks earlier and left it operational as part of the sting. No authorities are sorting through all the data trying to identify vendors and clients.

So, what is the dark web? Let’s Review

The dark web is an uncrawled, unindexed portion of the internet that can only be accessed using special software. On the dark web, websites can’t see users’ locations and IP addresses and users can’t see any information about the host. The level of anonymity available on the dark web lends itself to illicit activities such as trading in weapons, drugs or other illegal or controlled materials.

Got it?

Finally, if you’re interested in finding out more about the dark web, leave us a question in the comments section and we’ll work on getting it answered for you. But before we finish, I did just want to add a little bit of additional advice. If, despite our advice, you decide you’d like to go poking and prodding around the dark web. Here are a few tips:

  • Use a VPN. Before you even download Tor, close everything that’s connected to the internet, connect with your VPN and then start your download.
  • If possible, use an empty machine – meaning, don’t use a computer that’s full of sensitive files and information. It could become compromised.
  • Using Tor’s encryption, your connection and privacy should be safe, but there are still some dumb things you could do to blow your cover:
    • Don’t provide any personal information that could identify you.
    • Don’t log in to any other accounts or use any other programs while you’re connected to Tor.
    • Cover your computer’s camera and microphone with a black piece of tape.
  • Finally, Tor can protect your connection, but you don’t necessarily know who you’re connected with. So keep your eyes open for malicious content.


Patrick Nohe

Patrick started his career as a beat reporter and columnist for the Miami Herald before moving into the cybersecurity industry a few years ago. Patrick covers encryption, hashing, browser UI/UX and general cyber security in a way that’s relatable for everyone.