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dark web (darknet)

The dark web, also referred to as the darknet, is an encrypted portion of the internet that is not indexed by search engines and requires specific configuration or authorization to access.

Although the dark web is sometimes portrayed as a domain frequented by criminal elements, it is also used by people who require privacy for entirely legal reasons, such as the exchange of proprietary business information or communication by political activists.

Information may be exchanged through an encrypted peer-to-peer (P2P) network connection or by using an overlay network, such as the Tor browser. The anonymity that these networks provide has contributed to the dark web's reputation for housing illegal activity.

What is the difference between the dark web vs. the deep web?

The terms "dark web" and "deep web" are often used interchangeably, but they are not the same. Rather, the dark web is a small, less accessible part of the deep web.

Both the dark and deep web share one thing in common: Neither can be found in search engine results. The difference between them primarily lies in how their content is accessed. Deep web pages can be accessed by anyone with a standard web browser who knows the URL.

Dark web pages, in contrast, require special software with the correct decryption key, as well as access rights and knowledge of where to find the content.

If you imagine the web in three layers, at the very top would be the surface web, whose content is indexed by search engines like Google and Yahoo. Beneath it is the deep web, and then located underneath that is the dark web.

The dark web is located beneath the surface web and the deep web
The dark web is a small subsection of the deep web, requiring special tools or credentials to access its pages.

How is the dark web accessed?

The dark web can't be accessed through your typical browsers, such as Firefox or Chrome. It can only be accessed with a specialized, anonymous browser, such as Tor or the Invisible Internet Project (I2P).

This type of web browser keeps a user's identity hidden by routing web page requests through a series of proxy servers that renders an IP address untraceable.

Websites on the dark web have an unconventional naming structure. Therefore, users need to know the URL they want to access beforehand. Furthermore, dark web search engines aren't as effective and prominent as Google.

Instead of ending in .com or other common suffixes, dark web URLs typically end in .onion, a special-use domain suffix. Dark web sites also have URLs that are a mix of letters and numbers, making them hard to find or remember.

For example, the now-defunct darknet black market, The Silk Road, went by the URLs silkroad6ownowfk.onion and silkroad7rn2puhj.onion.

Who uses the dark web?

The dark web began as a channel for anonymous communication, making it attractive to hackers and criminals. While it continues to be a haven for illicit activity, it does have legitimate and lawful uses as well.

For example, the dark web can help users communicate in environments or geographical areas where free speech isn't protected. Dark web social media networks also exist, such as specialized clubs and BlackBook, which is considered the Facebook of Tor.

The primary use of the dark web is for e-commerce. With the use of cryptocurrency, such as Bitcoin, users can make any purchase on the dark web without revealing their identity.

This lends itself well to criminal activity and hidden services, such as:

  • hitmen
  • purchasing and selling credit card numbers, bank account numbers or online banking information
  • money laundering
  • illegal content like child pornography
  • purchasing and selling illegal drugs
  • purchasing and selling counterfeit money
  • purchasing and selling weapons

Is the dark web illegal?

No, the dark web itself is not illegal, but it can be a platform for illegal activity. There are also several legitimate companies and entities that have a presence on the dark web, and private users may have legitimate reasons for accessing the dark web as well.

One such ethical use for the dark web is for law enforcement and threat intelligence agencies. These types of professionals may search the dark web for signs of cybersecurity or data breaches, illegal activity, scams or other emerging threats.

The dark web also hosts a large amount of content that cannot be found in any other part of the internet. This includes banned books, collections of news articles and discussion forums.

In July 2017, six law enforcement agencies, including the FBI and Europol, coordinated the shutdown of two of the largest dark web marketplaces.

The first was The AlphaBay Market, a darknet black market that operated on the Tor network. Operation Bayonet, a multinational law enforcement sting, ultimately shut down AlphaBay, seizing the site's infrastructure and arresting its creator and administrator, Alexandre Cazes.

The second dark web marketplace to be shut down that year was The Silk Road, a black market created by Ross Ulbricht that became notorious for hosting a forum for buying and selling illegal drugs.

Since then, international law enforcement authorities have continued to make arrests and launch operations leading to the shutdown of large dark web marketplaces. In January 2021, a worldwide police operation took DarkMarket offline.

Is the dark web dangerous?

Accessing the dark web and using the tools or services found there is a high-risk activity both for individuals and enterprises. Dangers that users should be aware of before browsing the dark web include:

  • Viruses, ransomware, malware such as keyloggers, remote access Trojans (RAT), distributed denial of service (DDoS) or other cyber attacks.
  • Identity theft, credential theft or phishing.
  • Compromise of personal, customer, financial or operational data.
  • Leaks of intellectual property or trade secrets.
  • Spying, webcam hijacking or cyberespionage.

These dangers can interrupt business operations, defraud a company and devalue a brand's integrity. To safely use the dark web, users should employ reliable security software, including antivirus software and a VPN. Additionally, the Tor browser, Tor applications and operating systems should be kept up to date.

Because the dark web has become a platform for buying and selling stolen personal and financial data, it can be dangerous to enterprises and individuals even if they never access it. For additional protection, enterprises should be on the lookout for indicators of dark web compromise. They also can consider dark web monitoring services that search through data available on the dark web for any related to their specific company or employees.

For a comprehensive discussion of how the dark web can affect businesses, read "The dark web in 2021: Should enterprises be worried?"

This was last updated in April 2021

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