We may earn a commission when you make a purchase via links on this site.
What is the Dark Web? And How Do You Get There?
By Tibor Moes / January 2023
What is the Dark Web
The dark web is the very bottom part of the world wide web iceberg. The websites you can access via Google and other search engines are just the beginning. Read on to learn how deep this dark rabbit hole goes.
Summary: The dark web is a part of the internet that can only be accessed with special software or browsers. Its main goal is to keep the users anonymous, allow them to share restricted or censored content, and protect their privacy while doing so. Tor is the most popular browser for accessing the dark web, but there are more options available as well.
Tip: The internet has both beautiful and dangerous corners. And sometimes, it’s difficult to tell the two apart. Don’t take your security lightly. Protect your devices with security software and your privacy with a Virtual Private Network.
Open Web or Surface Web
The surface web or open web represents the visible part of the internet. This represents around 5% of all internet activity.
Any website you can access with a Google or Yahoo search or using your Chrome, Safari, or Firefox browsers belongs to the surface web pages. These websites can be recognized by their “.com”, “.org”, “.edu” registry operators.
Users can access these web pages because Google and other search engines index the websites using visible links. This action is also known as “crawling” since the search engine navigates a web page like a spider.
The deep web refers to the layer underneath the visible web. It hosts more than 90% of websites. It’s actually impossible to tell the exact number of web pages available at any one time.
In this respect, you can perceive search engines as fishing boats that can catch websites that are close to the surface of the water. The main body of the iceberg is tucked way below, and the deep web is what this section is called.
Private databases, academic journals, and other illicit content are out of reach for an average user. The deep web also includes the dark web portion.
You can find some resources that use these two terms interchangeably (the dark web and the deep web). However, it’s important to know the differences between them.
Most of the deep web content is safe and perfectly legal to use.
The content on the deep and dark web can include:
Databases that contain both private and public files that aren’t connected to the web
Intranets or internal networks used by government agencies, enterprises, and educational institutions for communication inside an organization
By “deep web”, we refer to any website that can’t be identified by a search engine. Chances are, you already use a good amount of deep web sites on daily basis. These sites can be locked behind a password or a different type of security wall. Other sites simply don’t enable search engines to crawl their content.
You can consider the deep web as hidden web content that’s safer and cleaner. Blog posts, web page redesign, online banking pages you access when checking your finances online are all deep web elements.
Most pages in the deep web are no threat to a user’s safety or computer. Quite the opposite – they serve to protect your personal data and privacy. Popular pages include:
Social messaging software accounts
When you enter the deep web, there are still some safety and security concerns. For example, some users may use the deep web to bypass local TV access, local restrictions, or movie broadcasting services they can’t otherwise access in their area. It’s also possible to steal TV shows and movies that haven’t come out yet or download music illegally.
Finally, when you get to the dark web websites, you can expect to find even more dangerous content. That’s why regular browsers can’t access files from this side of the internet. You can only use anonymous browsers for that.
The dark web consists of all web pages that aren’t indexed but are accessible with special web browsers. As part of the deep web, the dark web is located at the very bottom of an iceberg where the open web is the tip, and the deep web is the body.
Features of Dark Web
The structure of the dark web makes it perfect for anonymous actions:
Lack of page indexing. Surface web search engines don’t index web pages in the dark web. This means Google can’t find or show page results for content that exists on the dark web.
Visual traffic tunnels. There is a randomized network infrastructure that allows virtual traffic tunnels on the dark web.
Impossible to access by normal browsers Thanks to unique registry operators, normal internet browsers (Google Chrome, Safari, Firefox) can’t access the dark web. Firewalls, encryption, and other network security measures additionally hide the content on the dark web.
How to Access the Dark Web
Even though access to the dark web was originally reserved for cyber criminals, law enforcement officers, and hackers, the situation is a bit different today.
Anyone can join the dark web thanks to the new technology advancements like anonymization browsers and encryption. Tor is a browser that makes the dark web accessible to anyone.
What Is Tor?
Tor is short for “The Onion Routing” project, and it offers access to web pages that have a “.onion” registry operator. It’s an open-source browser that’s made to keep its users anonymous. When you open the browser, it will channel your internet activity through different IP addresses and hosts.
The activity of Tor users runs through node networks. An encryption element gets peeled off at each node. In the end, the information makes it to the desired website. The whole idea behind this “onion” routing is for the users to remain anonymous.
The US Naval Research Laboratory initially created this browser in the late 1990s in order to hide spy communications.
The creators were aware that the internet isn’t the most private space and wanted to make sure the messages they exchange were secure. That’s why they created Tor.
Over a 30-year period, the Tor platform has been repurposed and is now available publicly in the shape of a browser. Anyone, including you, can download Tor for free and use it without cashing out a dime.
Much like Google Chrome, Safari, or Firefox, this browser lets you use the internet to browse pages on the world wide web. However, it goes way deeper should you need it to. Tor doesn’t take the direct path between the computer and the deep web.
It relies on a random pathway of nodes or encrypted servers. This lets you connect to the deep web without stressing out about someone tracing your steps or exposing your browsing history.
The deep web sites rely on Tor and I2P, or the Invisible Internet Project, to hide their identity. That’s why you can’t find out who hosts or runs the websites on the deep web.
Other than Tor, you’ll need to install VPN software to further protect your identity online when you access the dark web. If you plan on downloading files from the dark web, you should also equip yourself with an antivirus.
What Is VPN?
A Virtual Private Network (VPN) is software that reroutes the internet traffic from your computer as if it’s coming from a server in another country. You actually get to mask your IP address when you use a VPN, so the website you visit will identify you as someone from the country used by the VPN.
This type of software also makes it more difficult for internet service providers or government officials to track your online activity. It offers censorship protection as well as keeps you safe from prying eyes. This is why VPNs are most often used when accessing the deep web and dark web pages.
Even though Tor is made to keep a user’s identity anonymous, it’s not foolproof. That’s why one should always access dark web websites using a reliable VPN provider.
Accessing the Dark Web Sites and Links
Note that in order to enter a website on the dark web, you need to know its exact URL. You’ll find that deep web and dark web URLs are much different than open web URLs. They consist of random letters, numbers, and special characters that can be lengthy.
You can find special pages on the web to get help with the dark web content you’re looking for. Some may even categorize the links, so online browsing for them is easy.
Here is an overview of dark web elements that are in existence. Note that it’s not recommended to visit dark websites that may engage with illegal content or activity.
Dark Web Marketplaces
Ever since the internet became mainstream, black markets or dark web marketplaces have skyrocketed. This is where people sell credit card numbers, Netflix accounts, drugs, weapons, and suchlike.
It’s important to remember that these markets are illegal. Simply browsing them online could get you into a lot of trouble. Users who make purchases rely on anonymity. They use cryptocurrencies like Litecoin or Bitcoin to remain unidentifiable by the authorities.
It’s possible to find dark web search engines, but even the best ones are hard to track given the landscape around them shifts constantly. For example, Torch is one of the most popular search engines with almost 300,000 onion pages and around 80,000 daily requests.
Dark Web Versions of Websites
Don’t be surprised if you run into ProtonMail, BBC, or PirateBay websites on the dark web. They exist to allow the user access to people who can’t enter these sites from their countries because of strict regulations.
For example, you can read the BBC news on the deep web by following this link:
Note that accessing this link isn’t an illegal activity. The BBC network itself created this channel to thwart censorship attempts.
Similarly, you can access New York Times’ website on the dark web by following this URL:
Again, reading NYT news on the deep web isn’t illegal.
Email services are available on the deep web and the dark web, which can mostly be accessed with Tor. In fact, you can’t send an email on the dark web to a person who doesn’t use Tor. Other than ProtonMail, popular email services include Mail2Tor and CTemplar.
File Transfer and Upload
The onion network through which Tor runs is super protected. It has numerous encryption layers for both the connection and the files shared on the dark web.
It’s often journalists and whistleblowers who use the dark web to transfer files that contain private information.
Some examples of file transfer and upload services include BlackCloud, MEGATor, and SecureDrop.
Chat Boards and Forums
Chat boards and forums are among the most dangerous places to be on the dark web. It’s not recommended to visit them as people may discuss unethical, illegal, and dangerous topics and activities.
Hackers also host forums on the dark web where they sell stolen data. This includes credit card numbers, passport information, digital identities, etc. Hackers get this information from phishing scams or similar malicious methods. If you ever receive a notification that your email or account on a platform was a part of a data breach, make sure to change your password right away. Otherwise, it might become available on the dark web for everyone to see or purchase.
Journalists and whistleblowers rely on dark web websites to find or leak sensitive information. People who wish to report their government or company for doing illegal activities can do so on Tor in order to maintain their anonymity.
You may be familiar with the name Edward Snowden and WikiLeaks. This world-known whistleblower used the dark web to spread his message and publish files that harmed thousands of people and organizations in the world.
Is the Dark Web Illegal?
In simple words, no. It’s not illegal to enter the dark web. In fact, most users are after the following benefits when accessing the dark web:
Untraceable sites and services
Opportunity to perform illegal actions for providers and users
For this reason, the dark web hosts a range of individuals who could otherwise endanger themselves by exposing their true identity. Persecution and abuse victims, political dissidents, and whistleblowers often use hidden dark web sites to express their opinions. It’s also easily accessible for users who want to commit crimes.
Hence the legality of the dark web mostly comes down to how users engage with it.
Is Tor Illegal?
Using Tor (or any other anonymized browser, for that matter) isn’t illegal per se. Dark web browsers aren’t tethered only to the deep web. You can access public web pages just as easily as you can deep web pages. Also, Tor offers unparalleled privacy features you are unlikely to find in other browsers.
Law enforcement officers and corporations often perform surveillance on users’ online activities without authorization. If you don’t want governmental agencies or internet service providers to have access to your online identity, Tor is a great browser for security.
In fact, people from areas with strict user laws and access policies can’t open public websites unless they install Tor or VPN software.
If individuals use Tor to download copyrighted content, share child pornography, or take part in cyber-terrorism, they can still be charged and taken to court. This goes for any browser, private or not, where the illicit activity takes place.
Dark Web Threats
The dark web is full of content that can cause harm to users or their devices. Here’s an overview of the main dark web threats.
Malware, or malicious software, is present all over the dark web. This software serves as a tool for cybercriminals to commit their crimes. It can also infect your computer with a random virus and expose you to identity theft and other actions much like on the public web.
The most commonly found type of malware on dark web websites includes ransomware, keyloggers, phishing malware, and botnet malware.
Every time you try to access a dark website, you are at risk of being a hacking target. However, your device can easily become infected with endpoint security software.
Also, an open web threat can make it to the deep web if your internet connection or computer can be exploited. Even though you get anonymity and protection with Tor, security is never infallible.
Government agencies are becoming known for overtaking Tor websites around the world. If you’re a frequent visitor of any Tor website, you can become a government target.
Popular marketplaces that sell illegal drugs were hijacked by police on multiple occasions. Law officials have come up with special software to analyze and infiltrate the activity that takes place on these websites. They can even discover the identity of bystanders and patrons. Simply visiting one such website without buying anything can result in government officials scrutinizing your other activities.
Also, infiltrations put you at risk of being monitored. Some countries consider bypassing the restrictions set by the government (considered government censorship) to be a criminal offense.
There are plenty of scams designed to trick users and profit from them, just like on the open web. There are plenty of illegal services being offered on the dark web, from weapon trafficking, paid assassinations, and others.
Some of the threats above are well-established and often circulate on the dark web. But others may be designed to take advantage of the reputation of the dark web and trick you into cashing out huge money. Phishing scams are also a popular method of performing identity theft or stealing personal information for extortion.
What You Can Do to Protect Yourself on the Dark Web
It’s crucial to take precautions when entering the dark web. Whether you’re a business owner, parent, or any other web user, it’s important to keep personal information away from the dark web.
Monitor Identity Theft
It’s vital that you do identity theft monitoring to keep your personal details private and not misused. Someone can distribute your password, bank account details, physical address, or social security number on the dark web. The purpose can be to harm your credit score, perform financial theft, breach your accounts, etc.
It’s just as important to have a well-functioning and reliable antivirus and antimalware system installed on your computer. Keep the software running all the time, especially when you enter the dark web. This space is simply packed with malicious content, and hackers can use keyloggers and similar tools to collect your data, infiltrate your computer system, and more.
Tips for Safe Dark Web Access on Computer
Let’s say you have a viable reason or need to enter the dark web. Here’s how you can stay safe during the experience.
Follow Your Intuition
If an offer on the dark web seems too good to be true, it probably is. Be smart when visiting dark web pages, and don’t trust everyone. If a situation doesn’t feel right, look elsewhere.
Keep Your Real-Life Persona Away From Your Virtual Persona
Your passwords, username, email addresses, login credentials, and other important information shouldn’t be used anywhere other than on the public web. Create a new account or identifier for the dark web and ensure you get unidentifiable debit cards for purchases.
Monitor Identity and Financial Theft
Make sure to come up with a viable plan for monitoring financial and identity theft to ensure your safety at all times.
Avoid Downloading Files on the Dark Web
The dark web is a lawless territory. If you download a file, you increase the risk of infecting your computer with a virus. In case you need to download something from the dark web, make sure to scan it using an antivirus program before opening it.
Disable Java and ActiveX
The two frameworks are known for being exploited by hackers, so you want to avoid getting scammed when you enter a whole network of malicious activities.
Use Non-Admin User Accounts
When you perform your daily activities, it would be ideal to use another non-admin personal user account. If you catch malware on your admin account, it can result in more significant damage and take more time to recover your data.
Restrict Tor Access
Maybe you need to visit the dark web to find information not available elsewhere. But if you must step into this part of the web, don’t make your children or other family members stumble across information they shouldn’t see.
Don’t forget to turn on your VPN as soon as you open Tor. You should make sure you’re connected to it before pasting the first onion link into the address bar. Ideally, you want to connect to a server from another country.
How to Stay Safe While Using the Dark Web on the Mobile
Note that the Tor browser is only available for Android devices. However, Android is far too vulnerable to be used for accessing the dark web.
iOS users have a bit more security-oriented operating system and can use Tor alternatives.
Overall, it’s not recommended to access the dark web from your phone regardless of the operating system. Almost every action you do online is tracked by an app, even your GPS. The abundant tracking increases the chances of having your data stolen or your phone hacked.
If you absolutely need to make it to the other side, make sure to follow the tips below.
Install a VPN
Still, if you decide you want to venture into the unknown on your phone, make sure you install trustworthy VPN software and run it before you open your dark web sites.
If you’re an iPhone user, you can download alternative dark web browsers like Onion Browser or OrNet Browser.
Install an Antivirus Software
Other than a VPN, you also want to install robust antivirus software. This program will be able to protect you in case a threat makes it onto your device. Whether you download a malicious file or open a link with suspicious content, strong antivirus software will recognize the action as harmful and prevent you from completing it.
You’ll also learn about the websites that are potentially dangerous before you even visit them, which is especially useful when navigating the dark web.
Minimize Data Collection
Data tracking and collection are all over the place in today’s world wide web. If you dive deeper, you are just as exposed to this issue as on the open web. It’s basically impossible to turn this feature off. That said, you can limit the possibility of your data getting leaked and shared when you’re on the dark web. For example, you can try one of the following tips:
Turn your location service off
Don’t accept permission requests (camera, settings, contacts, and other features)
Don’t visit the dark web on a device containing sensitive apps (social media, banking, finance, or messaging apps)
Disconnect your device from other devices in the home that use the same network (watches, thermostats, speakers, etc)
Go for the Highest Level of Security on Your Browser
Tor browser will let you choose between three main security modes:
It’s highly recommended to use the Safe or Safest security level. If you’re only entering the dark web to read a text and not interact with visual or audio-visual content, it’s best to pick the Safest setting.
Don’t Reveal Your Personal Information
Don’t give away your personal information or any piece of sensitive information about yourself. This includes your first name, last name, login credentials, email address, physical address, financial details, etc. Ideally, use an alias for creating accounts on dark websites.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is it illegal to just look at the dark web?
Simply looking at a dark web website isn’t illegal per se. If you engage in an activity considered criminal by your local authority, like downloading copyrighted material or purchasing illicit drugs, you risk a penalty.
Can i access the dark web?
Yes, you can access the dark web with a browser called Tor. This is a special browser that allows users to enter websites otherwise unrecognizable by standard browsers.
What is the purpose of the dark web?
The dark web used to be a channel where military members could communicate without the fear of exposing their data. Today, it’s a place for people who want anonymity to perform legal or illegal activities.
Author: Tibor Moes
Founder & Chief Editor at SoftwareLab
Tibor is a Dutch engineer and entrepreneur. He has tested security software since 2014.
Over the years, he has tested most of the best antivirus software for Windows, Mac, Android, and iOS, as well as many VPN providers.
He uses Norton to protect his devices, CyberGhost for his privacy, and Dashlane for his passwords.
This website is hosted on a Digital Ocean server via Cloudways and is built with DIVI on WordPress.
Don't take chances online. Protect yourself today:
Protect your Devices
Protect your Privacy
Or directly visit the #1: