What is the Dark Web and is it Legal to Access it?
The dark web is a part of the internet only accessible via a specific browser called Tor. Dark sites tend to live on messy URLs. Not only are they almost impossible to remember but they frequently change to maintain their privacy.
Often described as the “underbelly” or the “dark side” of the internet, there’s a certain public perception of the dark web.
But is the dark web as dangerous as these metaphors suggest? Or does it just have a PR problem?
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This article won’t deal in metaphors and misconceptions. Here, we’ll explore the facts and answer common questions and misconceptions about the dark web including;
Is it legal to access the dark web?
Accessing and browsing the dark web is entirely legal. But this question is an understandable one to ask. The dark web is widely associated with illegal activity. In fact, researchers Daniel Moore and Thomas Rid of King’s College London found the majority of dark websites are used for criminal activity, primarily drugs, money laundering and trading in stolen credentials.
That’s right. Should any of your personal information ever be exposed in a data breach, spyware or phishing attack, there’s a good chance it will be taken to the dark web so a buyer can be found.
Perhaps you’ve heard the infamous stories about Silk Road, the online marketplace for illegal drugs, Besa Mafia, the marketplace for contract killings or endless others involving blackmail, sex trafficking, weapons and terrorist organisations.
However, not all dark web activity is illegal or nefarious.
Did you know Facebook has a site accessible via the dark web? So does the New York Times.
You can see why there’s confusion.
It’s not illegal ... but a lot of illegal stuff happens there.
Infamous criminal sites live there … but so do popular, well known sites and brands.
Let’s dive in to clear up what exactly the dark web is (and what it isn’t) and how it’s different to the web you know.
What is the dark web?
The dark web is a part of the internet hidden from search engines, uses masked IP addresses and only accessible using a special web browser. The world wide web can be divided into three categories; the surface web, deep web and dark web.
1. The surface web
The surface web (also referred to as the indexed web or visible web) is web content indexed by search engines. Everything you can find with a Google search is part of the surface web. However, this part of the web is just the tip of the iceberg.
2. The deep web
The deep web is the next layer down. It contains material not indexed by search engines. This isn’t as mysterious as it may sound. You probably access the deep web every day. In fact, it makes up about 90% of the entire web.
For instance, your Facebook posts are unindexed and won’t be found via a web browser. Your email inbox, online banking and Google Drive folders are undiscoverable via a web browser. These all live on the deep web.
Some commentators use the term ‘the deep web’ incorrectly when they really mean ‘the dark web’. Now you know better!
3. The dark web
Within the deep web is another part of the internet called the dark web. Dark web sites are so well-hidden they can’t be accessed with normal browsers such as Chrome, Firefox or Safari. The dark web can only be accessed using a special browser called Tor.
What does the dark web look like?
On the surface, dark websites look pretty much like any other. They contain text and images, clickable content, site navigation buttons and so on. But there are differences.
- Naming structure
You’ll notice the URLs of dark websites end in .onion instead of .com or .co or others you would be used to seeing.
- Complex URLs
Alongside this, the URL characters preceding .onion look like gibberish compared to what we’re used to. Dark web links also almost impossible to remember. For example, SecureDrop is a site on the dark web allowing whistleblowers to submit sensitive information or anonymous tips to news organizations. It contains the submission sites for major news organizations such as:
- The Guardian http://33y6fjyhs3phzfjj.onion/
- Associated Press http://3expgpdnrrzezf7r.onion/
- The Washington Post http://jcw5q6uyjioupxcc.onion/
- Frequently changing addresses
While the goal of websites on the surface web is to be found as easily as possible, this is often not the case on the dark web. Dark sites frequently change their URLs to maximize privacy.
The Dark web browser
The dark web lives on the Tor ecosystem and can only be accessed through the Tor browser. So what is Tor? Tor stands for ‘the onion router’. It’s a free, open-source software using a global network of servers to help you stay anonymous online.
How does Tor browser work?
When you connect to the internet using Tor, your data goes through multiple phases of encryption before it’s directed through a random series of servers called ‘nodes’.
Each node decrypts your data one layer at a time so it can be interpreted, then send you to your intended dark web destination. It’s from this process of ‘peeling’ off the individual layers of encryption, like the layers of an onion, where ‘the onion router’ gets its name.
This type of multi-layer encryption means each node, or server in the chain, knows which server your data came from and which server to send it to next. But that’s all. This makes it almost impossible to track your dark web activity from beginning to end.
Not only does Tor’s encryption system keep your activity anonymous, but it keeps host websites hidden too.
You can see why this ecosystem would be so attractive to those involved in criminal activity.
However, it’s important to remember there are tonnes of legitimate reasons to use Tor to explore the dark web too.
Practical uses of the dark web
Even those of us who have no criminal intentions desire greater privacy in our online activities. Some non-illegal uses of the dark web include:
- Aiding democracy
The dark web allows citizens living under oppressive regimes to communicate safely. It was used extensively during the Arab Spring uprising in the early 2010s.
The dark web is frequently used by journalists to hide their IP addresses when digging into a sensitive investigation or potential story.
As it encrypts your data, using Tor and the dark web can give your personal information an additional layer of protection from hackers.
- General privacy
In America, internet service providers (ISPs) can (and do) record and sell your browsing history. Accessing content via the dark web shields your activity from them.
Can I use Tor to browse the surface web?
While Tor gives you access to sites on the .onion ecosystem, you can also use Tor to browse the surface web, taking advantage of its encryption to enjoy additional security and privacy. However, be warned, this will not be an enjoyable user experience.
Many open websites block Tor users because they can’t track them. Regular readers will know how gathering user data is where websites generate immense value.
While Tor is perfectly legal to use, it’s common knowledge a lot of criminal activity does happen over it. Rather than weeding out the genuine web users from the criminals, many website owners find it easier just to block all Tor users.
Finally, Tor’s encryption system is quite complex, meaning it can be a very slow process to navigate from A to B across the web. If you value a speedy browsing experience, chances are Tor won’t be your browser of choice.
How to safely access the dark web
So, we know accessing the dark web is legal and provides many benefits to well-meaning users such as enhanced privacy and defying censorship.
But we also know from Moore and Rid’s research that the majority of sites on the dark web are used for illegal activity. Therefore, we have to respect how this environment has the potential to be very unsafe. If you go looking for trouble on the dark web, chances are you’ll find it. If you stick to using it for legitimate and legal purposes and proceed with caution, you can have a perfectly safe and secure experience.
Here’s how to access the dark web safely.
- Get anti-malware protection
Whether you’re navigating the surface web, the deep web or the dark web, you must start by protecting your devices with anti-malware protection. This will prevent any unwanted software being installed on your device.
- Get a VPN
Using Tor means your ISP won’t be able to see the sites you visit, but they will be able to see you accessed Tor. By connecting to a trusted VPN (or Virtual Private Network) first and then using Tor, your connection to the Tor network will be entirely hidden from your ISP or other prying eyes. This gives you another layer of privacy and is a widely used method known as ‘Tor over VPN’.
- Download Tor browser
Now you have your VPN, you can proceed to download and install Tor from the official Tor website. This is as simple and user friendly as downloading any other legitimate program.
- Find .onion sites
Once you’ve connected to your VPN and accessed the Tor browser, now it’s time to find some good .onion sites. In your Tor browser, do a search of the surface web, e.g. ‘best .onion sites’. Here you’ll find some of the top recommended Tor sites to explore.
And that’s it!
How to stay safe while browsing the dark web
When using the dark web, think ‘safety-first’.
Stay vigilant and follow these extra tips to stay safe on the dark web.
- Navigate to the correct URL
.onion websites aren’t going to hurt you if you’re securely connected, but you could well stumble into some dark content by mistake. Be careful and deliberate about the sites you want to access.
- Be careful what you share
The dark web is unregulated and a popular environment for illegal activity. As above, make sure you’re only visiting .onion sites you trust and don’t share any personal information.
- Don’t download any files
Similar to the surface web, the dark web can contain malware. Please don’t download anything you’re not 100% certain is legitimate.
- Don’t make any purchases
Some dark web shops may be legitimate, but making a purchase is not worth the risk.
- Keep your programs up to date
System and software updates are designed to keep you safe. Keep these updated, including Tor.
There are many good and legitimate reasons to step into the deep web, but you should always do so with caution.
Your first step to safely accessing it is to get a VPN like Clario. Learn more about what you get with Clario VPN now.