What is the Dark Web?

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What is the dark web?

You have probably heard the term “dark web” used and probably have imagined that it is part of the internet that is unseen or maybe that it is a part of the internet that is secretive and rogue. While you would not stumble upon dark web content browsing normally or checking your favorite social media you may be wondering what it is exactly, is it safe to use, and how do you even gain access to the elusive dark web?

Surface Web

First let us look at the surface web portion of the internet, it is what we use every day to do our Google searches, log on to social media like Facebook, or watch videos on YouTube. While the surface web seems like a lot of content it only makes up a small portion of the internet roughly 5-10%. A common way to visualize it is imagining the internet is an iceberg and the surface web is just the tip, leaving the majority of the internet under the water. What makes things part of the surface web is that the content is indexed with search engines. Indexing is data about websites stored so that you can easily find it with your favorite search engine like Google, Bing, or Yahoo!.

I know what you are thinking, if the surface web is only a small part of the internet is the rest all the dark web?

No. The dark web is one of three subsections of the internet. In addition to the surface web and the dark web there is a middle layer referred to as the “deep web”.

The Deep Web

Below the surface is the deep web, a section of the internet that is not indexed by search engines but utilized frequently. The deep web consists of things like private databases, personal cloud data or corporate data that is behind a login screen and intentionally left out of search engine indexing.  The deep web makes up the largest portion of the internet, roughly 90%.

When you login to your personal email account and access your email contents, log on to social media to view content that is not indexed on a search engine, or access your bank account information, you are accessing the deep web. Other parts of the deep web include medical records that are stored in protected databases, legal documents and records, and academic databases and content.

The Dark Web

Part of the deep web, the dark web makes up roughly 5% of the internet and is home to many hidden sites both good and bad. The dark web is a part of the internet that was originally designed by the US Navy in the 1990’s for keeping communications private by using what is known as TOR or “The Onion Router”. TOR is named for its layers of encryption that protects the data being sent from being seen while it is being routed. For example, if you were sending data via TOR that routed through three nodes the data would be encapsulated with three layers of encryption. Each node that the data reaches would “peel” back a layer of that encryption and send it to the next node until the data made it to the final destination and the receiver gets information that theoretically remains confidential.

The TOR technology was made open source in 2004 and is available for public use (CNET).  Anonymity is key when talking about the dark web and why someone would use it without nefarious reasons, however it is a double-edged sword and provides anonymity to users regardless of their intent.

TOR is not the only technology to access the dark web, there are other browsers like Subgraph, Whonix, and Waterfox that allow you to traverse the dark web.

The Bad side of the Dark Web

Unfortunately, the dark web is accessible and useful to users with malintent and provides haven for many illegal sites and activities. Things like illegal drugs, illegal firearm sells, stolen data, human trafficking, child pornography, and hitman services are accessible on the dark web so you must be aware of what you are accessing and vigilant not to stumble upon these activities.

Hackers

Hackers use the dark web to sell stolen personal data like social security numbers, email addresses, and banking information as well as placing ads for their services to hack a site and attempt to acquire access to websites or databases. The dark web even has DDoS or Distributed Denial of Service attacks for sell, which use a multitude of hacked computers, called botnets, to disrupt service to websites.

Through the use of the dark web, hackers can operate anonymously by hiding their true identities. Hackers are able to hide things like their location and IP addresses which allows them to engage in illegal activities without repercussions.

The Silk Road

You may have heard about the Silk Road in reference to the dark web, it was an illegal website that connected people to illegal substances, firearms, counterfeit money, forged documents like drivers licenses and passports, and child pornography. The site was launched in 2011 and was named after the ancient trading route that connected the Europe, the middle east, and Asia providing transportation and trade of goods.

The Silk Road was shut down by the FBI in 2013 and the creator, Ross Ulbricht, was sentenced to two life sentences plus 40 years. Since the Silk Road operated on the dark web, regular credit cards are not used because they would allow authorities to trace transactions back to the originating party, instead Bitcoin was used. The total amount of Bitcoins reported to be spent on the Silk Road was 9,519,664 Bitcoins. The dollar amount of total sales was around $183 million.

This did not stop the dark web long as the next month the Silk Road 2.0 was created by other members of the original Silk Road. This time the administrator, which assumed the pseudonym Dread Pirate Roberts from Ross Ulbricht, made encrypted copies of portions of the source code and distributed them in order to avoid another site shutdown. In the event that the FBI were to shut down the site, other administrators could rebuild the codebase and be back in business whereas the original Silk Road had no such fail safe. However, in 2014 Silk Road 2.0 was also shut down and the alleged creator Blake Benthall was arrested along with a programmer, Thomas White, responsible for building the site. The same month another dark web site took the name Silk Road 3 Reloaded, and the illegal activities continued. Soon after in 2015 the Silk Road came back again as Silk Road Reloaded and was also eventually shut down. The Silk Road is just one example of the sort of negative things on the dark web that you should avoid for multiple reasons.

The Good Side of the Dark Web

The dark web does have a good side that is useful for activities which require anonymity and confidentiality like circumventing government censorship by dissidents of an authoritarian state or providing a way for journalists to keep in contact with sources that wish to remain anonymous. User privacy is protected because of the nature of the dark web and the unique way connections are made and data is sent and received. As a normal user you may want to browse anonymously without being mined for data by your internet service provider and using the dark web allows you to do this if you access it properly (more on how to do that later).

While the bad side of the dark web can be really bad, it also gives law enforcement a way to covertly assume an anonymous identity and track down illegal activities online. This enables cybercrime investigators to impersonate someone like a drug dealer without giving up their true identity and track down sources of illegal activity online.

The dark web’s anonymity has provided a place where whistleblowers can report to proper authorities without fear of being punished or found out. Information can be posted by whistleblowers on the dark web for others to comb through and shed some light on illegal activities like illegal drugs, human trafficking, or even illegal weapons caches, to include nuclear caches. It is such a great resource that even the Central Intelligence Agency has published a dark web site for individuals to contact them with intel. You can find the link later in the useful sites section.

Journalists researching corrupt governments have a hard time receiving information from sources because of the fear of what the state will do to them. Sources can send documents to journalists using things like SecureDrop, which uses the TOR network to ensure security and provides the source with a codename so that they can communicate with the journalist about the information provided. The security is so elaborate that the news organization uses two computers to retrieve and decode the information. The first computer is used to retrieve the encrypted file and move it to removable storage. Then the removable storage is moved to a computer not connected to the internet for decryption which requires a second thumb drive with the encryption key to decode the data that was sent from the source. After the information has been accessed the computer is then reset wiping the information from the data sent by the source.

Censorship by oppressive regimes on the web is another reason the dark web can be a good thing. Sites like Facebook are banned or extremely difficult to access in countries like China, North Korea, and Iran, but the Dark Web gives people a way to access it. China has such great censorship that the nick name “The Great Firewall” has been given to the online blockade. Facebook has even setup a dark web site to help people communicate and evade the censorship. So, despite all of the bad side of the dark web there is definitely positive uses for such a powerful tool.

 How do I access the Dark web?

Before jumping into the deep end, you need to take necessary precautions and enter at your own risk. Before downloading the TOR browser, you should make sure you have an up-to-date antivirus/antimalware product, a VPN, and a lot of discipline. The dark web is useful, but there are many illegal activities taking place and malicious or illegal sites, you do not want to get turned around and find yourself on one of these sites.

If you do not have a VPN, get one before starting, while the TOR will work without a VPN, your internet service provider can still see that you are accessing the TOR network, so to provide complete privacy, start up that VPN before doing anything.

Once your VPN is connected you can navigate to https://www.torproject.org/download/ to download the TOR browser. The installation is straight forward and installs like a normal program. Once installation is finished you can open the TOR browser and utilize the Duck Duck Go search engine just like you would use your favorite search engine, however this is only searching the surface web.

Websites on the dark web have special web addresses that look different from the domain names you are used to seeing. Instead of seeing your normal www.domainName.com, you will see a string of characters and a .onion at the end. You can use the search engine in your tor browser to search for a list of .onion websites that you may be interested in.

Finding content on the dark web can be tricky as the sites are hidden and not listed in a search engine like sites that are on the surface web are. There are a few ways to find sites on the dark web, the first way is to use your search engine to look up a list of .onion sites.

Tips before you get browsing

Some things you should know before beginning your dark web browsing journey:

  1. Do not make purchases on the dark web. Most dark web sites accept Bitcoin to avoid tracking, entering your credit card data to the dark web not only defeats the purpose of confidentiality but can result on the theft of your credit card or banking information.
  2. Make sure you know what site you are accessing and that you have the correct web address. Fraudulent sites can be the home to malware like key loggers, a program that records what you type, or other viruses that do things like record audio or video from your device.
  3. Always use your VPN before logging onto the dark web. This protects your anonymity by hiding your IP address and giving a virtual address as well as encrypting your data before sending it to your ISP. Research your VPN to make sure that it will suffice for searching the dark web, things like a kill switch to turn off your connection if the VPN fails instead of just sending your data unencrypted can be useful features while browsing the dark web.
  4. Make sure your TOR browser and all other software is up to date to prevent security vulnerabilities.
  5. Don’t use Torrents on the TOR network, your real IP will be sent despite all of your hard work to be anonymous.
  6. Don’t log in to any personal sites while using the dark web and don’t use a search engine like Google as it will still collect data about the TOR exit node (the last layer of the onion’s encryption).
  7. The TOR browser has a button with a broom that will give you a new identity with a click, use it if you think you have done something to give away your identity.

Some Useful Sites on the Dark Web

Now that you are connected to the dark web here are just a few sites that you may find useful, be diligent to get the correct address or you can find yourself somewhere you should not be.

Duck Duck Go

Previously mentioned, a search engine that values privacy, Duck Duck Go has its own dark web address and provides a private way to search the web at http://3g2upl4pq6kufc4m.onion/ .

Facebook

That’s right, Facebook has a dark web address. While Facebook still collects data of what you do on their site, it does not mean you have to let everyone in between know what you are doing. This is particularly helpful to people that live in countries that ban the social media giant and try to limit collaborative free speech.

https://www.facebookcorewwwi.onion/ .

The Central Intelligence Agency

The CIA maintains a dark web presence to allow people to get help or provide intelligence without compromising themselves.

http://ciadotgov4sjwlzihbbgxnqg3xiyrg7so2r2o3lt5wz5ypk4sxyjstad.onion/

Proton Mail

An end-to-end encrypted mail service, Proton Mail uses client-side encryption and protects the content of your emails. It was developed by scientists at CERN in 2013 to provide secure data transfer in emails.

https://protonirockerxow.onion/login

Library Genesis

A free online library of content, Library Genesis incorporates existing library catalogs to create the largest virtual library and has a forum for you to collaborate with other users.

http://genotypeinczgrxr.onion/

Sci-Hub

A database of scientific articles and research papers.

http://scihub22266oqcxt.onion/

You’re all Set!

Now that you are armed with the knowledge of good and evil about the dark web you are ready to be a responsible dark web user! Whether you intend to just privately browse the internet, do some research with the dark web resources, or connect with a journalist to relay some information anonymously, use the dark web wisely and cautiously as it is a powerful tool.

Thank you!

The Dark.Exchange, along with its Dark.Commodity analytics platform, has brought a global standard for Dark Web Market indexing.

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