What is the Dark Web? Everything You Need to Know (2023)

By Tibor Moes / Updated: June 2023

What is the Dark Web? Everything You Need to Know (2023)

What is the Dark Web?

The dark web has long been a mysterious and enigmatic part of the internet. Some view it as a dangerous and lawless place, while others see it as a bastion of free speech and privacy. So, what is the dark web exactly, and how can we navigate its risks and benefits?

In this blog post, we’ll explore the dark web’s complexities, from its legitimate uses to its darker side, while offering guidance on accessing it safely and securely.

Summary

  • The dark web is a part of the internet that requires special software to access and provides anonymity for privacy advocates, whistleblowers, journalists & criminals.

  • Navigate it safely by taking necessary precautions such as using a VPN and being aware of scams.

  • Law enforcement is tackling criminal activity on the platform with undercover operations & cryptocurrency tracking.

Don’t become a victim of cybercrime. Protect your devices with the best antivirus software and your privacy with the best VPN service.

Understanding the Dark Web

The dark web is a hidden part of the internet that can’t be found with regular search engines and requires special software to access it. Although the dark web is often associated with illegal activities, it also serves as a platform for privacy advocates, whistleblowers, and journalists to communicate securely and anonymously.

Understanding the dark web begins with differentiating it from other parts of the internet and exploring the role of anonymity within it.

Surface Web, Deep Web, and Dark Web: Key Differences

The internet is like an iceberg, with the surface web being just the tip visible above the water. The surface web refers to the part of the internet accessible through regular search engines, such as Google or Bing. However, beneath the surface lies the hidden majority of the internet: the deep web and the dark web.

The deep web comprises web content requiring authentication or a specific URL, such as private databases, medical records, and other sensitive data. The dark web, on the other hand, is a subset of the deep web that requires specialized software like the Tor browser to access and is often associated with illegal activities. About 96% to 99% of the internet is made up of the deep web, with only a small portion (approximately 5%) being the dark web.

Navigating the dark web can be a risky endeavor, as its association with illicit activities makes it a potential breeding ground for hackers and other malicious actors. However, there are also legitimate reasons to access the dark web, such as secure communication, privacy advocacy, and whistleblowing.

The dark web’s anonymity and accessibility make it a double-edged sword, providing both a haven for illegal activities and a refuge for those seeking to protect their privacy.

The Role of Anonymity in the Dark Web

Anonymity is a crucial aspect of the dark web, enabling users to engage in activities without the fear of being identified or monitored. This anonymity can be beneficial for legal activities, such as secure transactions using cryptocurrencies, and for accessing anonymized browsers without breaking the law. However, it also provides a cover for illegal activities, such as cybercrime and the distribution of malware.

Despite the perceived anonymity, it’s important to note that it’s not foolproof. Any online activity can leave traces that could potentially lead to a user’s identity if investigated thoroughly enough. In oppressive environments where strict access and user laws are in place, people may need to use Tor clients and VPNs to access even public sites.

Anonymity on the dark web can be both a blessing and a curse, enabling users to protect their privacy while also providing cover for those engaging in criminal activities.

Accessing the Dark Web: Tools and Techniques

To access the dark web, specialized software and techniques are required, such as the Tor browser. While only a small percentage of Tor users access hidden websites, the network provides a secure and anonymous environment for those who do.

In this section, we’ll explore the tools and techniques used to access the dark web, including the Tor browser and dark web search engines and directories.

Tor Browser: Gateway to the Dark Web

The Tor browser is an anonymizing browser that routes web page requests through a series of proxy servers, making your IP address untraceable and providing access to the dark web. It’s the most popular tool for accessing the dark web securely, as it routes all traffic through a series of volunteer-operated proxy servers around the world, ensuring your activity remains safe and anonymous.

However, using the Tor browser to access the dark web can be unpredictable, unreliable, and slow due to the nature of the proxy server network. Despite these drawbacks, the Tor browser offers greater privacy and anonymity than standard browsers, making it an attractive option for those seeking to access the dark web for legitimate reasons.

It’s important to remember that using the Tor browser doesn’t make any illegal activities legal; however, it does provide a higher level of security and privacy for those who need it.

Dark Web Search Engines and Directories

Aside from the Tor browser, there are also dark web search engines and directories that help users navigate the hidden landscape. Some popular ones include Torch, Not Evil, and Ahmia. Finding information on the dark web can be challenging due to the complex and constantly changing nature of dark web addresses, which often consist of random numbers and letters. Additionally, browsing the dark web can be slow, as traffic must pass through multiple proxy servers operated by volunteers.

While dark web search engines can help users find information, they come with their own set of challenges. Search results can be repetitive and irrelevant, and link lists may lead to timed-out connections and 404 errors. Despite these difficulties, dark web search engines and directories remain essential tools for navigating the hidden depths of the internet.

Legal Uses of the Dark Web

While the dark web is often associated with illicit activities, it also has legitimate uses. Privacy advocates, whistleblowers, and journalists can use the dark web to communicate securely and anonymously, protecting their identities and ensuring their safety.

In this section, we’ll explore some of the legal uses of the dark web, including privacy advocacy, whistleblowing, and secure communication and collaboration.

Privacy Advocates and Whistleblowers

The dark web offers a valuable resource for privacy advocates and whistleblowers seeking to protect their identities and communicate securely. By using the dark web, they can share information without fear of retaliation or legal repercussions. This anonymity also allows them to access websites and services that may not be available on the surface web, further protecting their privacy.

However, accessing the dark web can be risky, as it is commonly used for illegal activities like cybercrime and malware distribution, making it essential for users to take appropriate precautions. To ensure their safety, privacy advocates and whistleblowers should use a VPN when accessing the dark web, disable JavaScript, and be cautious when clicking on links.

By taking these precautions, they can minimize the risks associated with using the dark web for legal purposes and protect their privacy and security.

Secure Communication and Collaboration

The dark web provides encrypted email services, chat platforms, and other tools for secure communication and collaboration, allowing users to communicate without worrying about surveillance or censorship. These tools can be particularly valuable for journalists who need to communicate with sources who wish to remain anonymous, as well as for individuals and organizations seeking to collaborate securely in an environment free from monitoring by government agencies or other third parties.

While the dark web offers a secure and anonymous environment for communication and collaboration, it’s important to be aware of the potential risks. Users should be cautious when clicking on links and engaging with other users, as scams and phishing attempts are common. By staying vigilant and using secure communication tools, users can harness the power of the dark web for legitimate purposes without compromising their safety and privacy.

Illicit Activities on the Dark Web

Though the dark web has legitimate uses, it is also home to a wide range of illegal activities. From cybercrime and malware distribution to underground marketplaces trading in drugs and stolen data, the dark web’s anonymity and accessibility make it an attractive hub for criminal activity.

In this section, we’ll delve into the darker side of the dark web and explore the various illicit activities that take place there.

Cybercrime and Malware Distribution

The dark web is a breeding ground for cybercrime, with criminals using its anonymity to spread malware, sell stolen personal and business information, and engage in other nefarious activities. Malware distribution, hacking services, and ransomware are just a few examples of the types of cybercrime that can be found on the dark web. This can pose significant dangers to individuals and businesses alike, as cybercriminals can target them for attacks, steal sensitive data, or even hold their systems hostage in exchange for ransom payments.

Law enforcement agencies face numerous challenges in monitoring and combating cybercrime on the dark web. The anonymous nature of the platform makes it difficult for authorities to identify and apprehend criminals, while the global reach of the dark web enables criminals to operate across borders. This makes it crucial for individuals and businesses to be vigilant in protecting their data and systems from cyber threats emanating from the dark web.

Underground Marketplaces

The dark web is also home to underground marketplaces where illegal goods and services are bought and sold using cryptocurrencies. These marketplaces can range from drug trafficking hubs to platforms for trading stolen data, such as credit card information and online account logins. One notorious example is the Silk Road, a dark web marketplace that operated from 2011 to 2013 and facilitated the sale of illegal drugs and other illicit goods before being shut down by the FBI.

The use of underground marketplaces carries significant risks for those involved, including legal repercussions, fines, imprisonment, and asset forfeiture. Additionally, the anonymous nature of these platforms makes it difficult to verify the trustworthiness of sellers, increasing the likelihood of scams and fraud. As such, it’s essential for users to be cautious when engaging with these marketplaces and to recognize the potential dangers associated with participating in illegal activities on the dark web.

Navigating the Dark Web Safely

While the dark web offers a wealth of opportunities for both legal and illegal activities, it’s crucial to navigate it safely and securely. By taking appropriate precautions and being aware of the potential risks, users can minimize the dangers associated with accessing the dark web.

In this section, we’ll offer guidance on how to access and explore the dark web safely, including the use of VPNs and additional security measures, as well as recognizing and avoiding scams.

VPNs and Additional Security Measures

Using a VPN (Virtual Private Network) is one of the most effective ways to ensure your safety and privacy when accessing the dark web. A VPN creates a secure connection between your computer and the internet, encrypting your data and hiding your IP address, making it difficult for anyone to track your online activity. This added layer of protection is especially important when accessing the dark web, as the platform’s anonymity can make it a prime target for cybercriminals looking to exploit vulnerabilities in users’ systems.

In addition to using a VPN, users should also take other security measures to protect themselves when accessing the dark web. This includes disabling JavaScript in the Tor browser, being cautious when clicking on links, and avoiding engaging in any illegal activities. By following these best practices, users can minimize their risk of encountering threats on the dark web while still benefiting from its unique features and resources.

Recognizing and Avoiding Scams

Scams and phishing attempts are common on the dark web, with criminals seeking to exploit the platform’s anonymity to steal personal information or defraud unsuspecting users. To protect yourself from these threats, it’s important to be vigilant when browsing the dark web and engaging with other users. This includes being cautious when clicking on links, especially those that seem too good to be true, and verifying the trustworthiness of sellers on underground marketplaces before making a purchase.

One tool that can help users stay safe from scams and data breaches on the dark web is Avast BreachGuard. This service monitors dark web marketplaces for any signs of your personal data being sold, alerting you as soon as a potential breach is detected. By staying informed and taking appropriate precautions, users can safely navigate the dark web while minimizing their exposure to online threats.

Law Enforcement and the Dark Web

While the dark web provides a haven for criminals seeking anonymity, law enforcement agencies are constantly working to monitor and combat illegal activities on the platform. From undercover operations to tracking cryptocurrency transactions, authorities employ a range of tactics to identify and apprehend criminals operating on the dark web.

In this section, we’ll explore how law enforcement agencies tackle the challenges posed by the dark web, as well as some high-profile takedowns and the difficulties faced in policing this hidden part of the internet.

High-Profile Takedowns

Operation SpecTor is one example of a successful law enforcement operation targeting the dark web, resulting in 179 arrests and the seizure of 500 kilograms of drugs across six countries. In addition to this operation, other dark web marketplaces and forums have been taken down by law enforcement, such as Monopoly Market.

These high-profile takedowns serve as a warning to those who would use the dark web for unlawful activities and demonstrate the determination and capabilities of law enforcement agencies in combating criminal operations on the platform.

While the dark web’s anonymity presents significant challenges for authorities, these successes highlight the ongoing efforts to bring criminals to justice and protect the public from the threats posed by the dark web.

The Challenges of Policing the Dark Web

Policing the dark web is no easy task, as the platform’s anonymity and global reach make it difficult for law enforcement to identify and apprehend criminals. In addition to the technical challenges, authorities must also contend with the sheer volume of illegal activities taking place on the dark web, from cybercrime and malware distribution to drug trafficking and identity theft.

Despite these challenges, law enforcement agencies continue to adapt and develop new strategies to combat the dark web’s criminal underworld. Through the use of undercover operations, tracking cryptocurrency transactions, and analyzing online activity, authorities are making strides in their efforts to protect individuals and businesses from the threats emanating from the dark web.

While the battle is far from over, the successes of high-profile takedowns and ongoing investigations demonstrate that the fight against crime on the dark web is far from a lost cause.

Summary

In conclusion, the dark web is a complex and multifaceted part of the internet that offers both risks and benefits for its users. While its anonymity and accessibility make it a hotbed for illegal activities, it also provides a valuable platform for privacy advocates, whistleblowers, and journalists seeking to protect their identities and communicate securely. By taking appropriate precautions and staying informed about potential threats, users can safely navigate the dark web while minimizing their exposure to its darker side. As law enforcement agencies continue to adapt and develop new strategies to combat crime on the dark web, the battle between criminals and authorities will undoubtedly continue to evolve in the years to come.

How to stay safe online:

  • Practice Strong Password Hygiene: Use a unique and complex password for each account. A password manager can help generate and store them. In addition, enable two-factor authentication (2FA) whenever available.
  • Invest in Your Safety: Buying the best antivirus for Windows 11 is key for your online security. A high-quality antivirus like Norton, McAfee, or Bitdefender will safeguard your PC from various online threats, including malware, ransomware, and spyware.
  • Be Wary of Phishing Attempts: Be cautious when receiving suspicious communications that ask for personal information. Legitimate businesses will never ask for sensitive details via email or text. Before clicking on any links, ensure the sender's authenticity.
  • Stay Informed. We cover a wide range of cybersecurity topics on our blog. And there are several credible sources offering threat reports and recommendations, such as NIST, CISA, FBI, ENISA, Symantec, Verizon, Cisco, Crowdstrike, and many more.

Happy surfing!

Frequently Asked Questions

Below are the most frequently asked questions.

What is the dark web actually used for?

The Dark Web is mainly used for activities that seek to remain anonymous, such as the purchase of illegal goods or services. It is also used to gain access to private networks and bypass censorship imposed by governments and educational institutions.

People can use it to bypass government censorship or to access private networks. It is also used to facilitate illegal activities like drug dealing, human trafficking, and cybercrime.

Is the dark web illegal?

No, the dark web is not illegal in itself. Although there are some illegal activities that occur on the dark web, it can also be used for completely legal activities such as anonymous browsing and online privacy protection.

It’s important to stay informed on the risks associated with using the dark web so that you can stay safe.

Is it safe to go on the dark web?

Overall, it is not safe to go on the dark web due to the malicious actors that are known to exist there, as well as the potential risks of downloading or buying anything. Exercise extreme caution if you choose to do so and never open links or files that may be dangerous.

What can you do legally on the dark web?

Using the dark web is legal, as long as it is done with care. While there are many legal activities on the dark web, such as protecting online privacy or staying anonymous for journalists and activists, there are also potential risks in terms of illegal activities.

Therefore, it is important to be mindful when using the dark web to ensure that it is being used for legitimate purposes.

Author: Tibor Moes

Author: Tibor Moes

Founder & Chief Editor at SoftwareLab

Tibor has tested 39 antivirus programs and 30 VPN services, and holds a Cybersecurity Graduate Certificate from Stanford University.

He uses Norton to protect his devices, CyberGhost for his privacy, and Dashlane for his passwords.

You can find him on LinkedIn or contact him here.