What is the Dark Web

The Dark Web: What is it exactly and how do you get there?

Last edited: July 2, 2019
Reading time: 14 minutes, 26 seconds

You might have heard of the dark web. It’s usually described as the ‘hidden’ and even dangerous part of the internet where all sorts of shady business takes place. Most internet users won’t find themselves on the dark web regularly, or at all. This is understandable, because some parts of it really aren’t safe. If you’re curious to find out more, this article will tell you everything you need to know about the dark web and how to gain access to it.

First we’ll introduce you to what the dark web is exactly and what happens on there. Then you will learn about the Tor browser and VPNs and how these tools are essential if you want to travel the dark web. After that we have created a guide that you can follow to get on the dark web. Make sure to check all of our security measures before doing so. Finally, you will find out that the use of the dark web is legal but some practices on there aren’t.

Stay safe on the dark web!

Accessing the dark web is very easy, but so is getting into deep trouble because of it. Therefore it’s important to always keep your online safety and privacy in mind. We highly recommend using a VPN to encrypt and anonymize all your internet traffic. Aside from that, always make sure you have proper and updated antivirus software running on your device. This way nobody can intercept your data, monitor your online actions or infect your pc. A VPN will protect you when you’re surfing the surface or deep web, but also when you want to investigate the dark web. With it, your Internet Service Provider (ISP), governments and hackers will all be clueless as to what you’ve been doing online.

An excellent VPN for the dark web: CyberGhost

CyberGhost is a high quality VPN provider which allows you to protect 7 devices at the same time. They offer strong encryption and an array of extra safety measures to choose from. This makes CyberGhost a great provider to use when you venture onto the dark web.

CyberGhost currently offers a very good deal to protect and anonymize all your internet traffic for less than $3,50 per month. This comes with a 45 day money-back guarantee, so you can try it risk-free and ask for your money back if you aren’t content. Moreover, they offer good customer support and are extremely user-friendly. Read all about this provider in our full review of CyberGhost.

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What is the dark web?

The internet is often described as consisting of three parts: the surface web, the deep web, and the dark web. The surface web is what most of us use every day. It’s accessible through regular search engines, like Chrome, Safari and Firefox. This very article is part of it: you can access it anywhere and at any time, as long as you have an internet connection.

The deep web is the part of the internet that houses very specific information. Most of us won’t have access to this information, and it isn’t accessible through search engines either. Mostly, these are pages and databases that are only meant for a certain group of people within an organization. In order to get acces, you need to know the exact web address (URL). In some cases, you need a password as well. Examples of pages on the deep web are some university library databases, reports and journals that only subscribers have access to, and the timeline of your private Facebook account.

The last layer of the internet is the dark web. It’s more difficult to reach than the surface or deep web, since it’s only accessible through special search engines such as the Tor browser. The dark web is the unregulated part of the internet. No organization, business or government is in charge of it or able to apply rules. This is exactly the reason why the dark web is commonly associated with illegal practices. It’s impossible to reach the dark web through a ‘normal’ browser, and even in the Tor browser you won’t be able to find any ‘dark’ websites ending in .com or .org. Instead, URLs usually consist of a random mix of letters and numbers and end in .onion. Moreover, the URLs of websites on the dark net change regularly. Before moving on to the kinds of websites you’ll find on the dark web, we’ll first explain a little more about Tor.

Dark Web Surface Web Graphic Iceberg

Tor

Tor The Onion Router LogoTor (the onion router) is open-source free software that functions as a browser. Unlike browsers such as Chrome, Firefox, and Edge, Tor aims to keep its users anonymous. In order to make this happen, Tor works with high levels of encryption. Your searches travel through a network of nodes. At every node, part of the encryption is peeled off. Eventually your information ends up at the website of your choice. This process of onion routing aims to keep the user anonymous.

The Tor browser is used to access the dark web. As mentioned, this is the only way to reach URLs with the suffix .onion. This suffix refers to the onion routing that Tor uses to secure anonymous browsing: encryption comes in layers, like the layers of an onion. Websites can decide to use an .onion domain because they do not want too many people to know they exist. This could be because they simply want to be exclusive, or because they contain content that’s considered questionable or illegal.

Tor can give you access to the whole web, regardless of whether the websites are regulated or not. Although Tor can be used to access the dark web, most of its users still remain on the surface web. In other words: Tor is mostly used to anonymize online browsing, but is also the main route to the dark web.

What happens on the dark web?

It’s very difficult to figure out exactly what happens on the dark web. As mentioned earlier, you need to know specific URLs in order to get to the right pages. It’s quite hard to stumble onto the right website when all the web addresses are random combinations of digits and letters. Moreover, there are a lot of stories going around about the craziest services and pages hiding on the dark web. Ordering hitmen is only one of the available examples. It’s unclear whether these extreme stories are actually true, or whether they’re mere speculation. Still, many other questionable things, such as drugs and weapons, are freely available on the dark web.

We can’t make any definite claims, as the dark web is constantly changing and remains largely hidden to many. However, in general, these are some of the things you may find on the dark web:

  • Black markets
  • Fraudulent or otherwise dangerous websites
  • Email services, fora and other forms of anonymous online communication
  • Botnet platforms
  • Bitcoin websites

Black Markets

The black market has flourished since the birth of the internet. The dark web is home to many a black marketplace, where all sorts of goods can be sold and bought. The most famous online ‘darknet market’ was probably Silk Road. This project has since been shut down by the FBI. Websites like Silk Road and other darknet markets function as a web shop for illegal products that you won’t find on the surface web. Think of it as an illegal version of Ebay. Examples of things you might find on a black market are drugs, weapons, and fake passports. Needless to say, we advise our readers NOT to take part in illegal trade while surfing the dark web.

Dangerous Websites

The dark web is also swarming with fake and dangerous websites. That’s why it’s important to always be careful and to use both a VPN and good antivirus software. Don’t ever click on a link on the dark web if you don’t know where it’ll lead. Your computer could be hacked or infected with malware before you know what’s happening.

Moreover, the dark web houses all websites that wouldn’t be tolerated on the surface web due to their content. Sadly, you can find things such as animal abuse or child pornography on there. Therefore it might be wise to stay away from this part of the internet.

Anonymous Communication

The dark web is also used for anonymous communication. Whistleblowers and journalists might use these routes to leak or find sensitive information. People who want to report a company or government for an illegal act can use the dark web to try and stay anonymous. Journalists can use it to get in contact with anonymous sources. Both the WikiLeaks network and whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden have used the dark web in the past to spread their message.

While the people in these examples did what they did in the name of internet freedom and transparancy, not everyone has those same motivations. Criminals and terrorists will also use anonymous communication on the dark web to try and stay clear of law enforcement.

Botnets

A botnet is a network of infected devices that can be operated by the hacker that controls them. Often, the devices in the network are infected without their owners being aware of it. The hacker in charge of the botnet can use the devices to spread viruses, phish for private information, or facilitate DDoS attacks. The botnet is less likely to be discovered, taken down, or taken over if it operates on the dark web, hence a lot of botnets can be find operating on there.

Bitcoin

If you visit the dark web, you’ll find that almost everything is paid for in Bitcoins. Bitcoin is an online currency that can be used worldwide. Because the blockchain method behind Bitcoin creates an anonymous exchange of money, it’s ideal for shady businesses on the dark web. However, recent incidents show that the currency might not be as anonymous as some people might have hoped. Other types of cryptocurrency are also very popular. New cryptocurrencies are constantly trying to improve on safeguarding the anonymity of the people using them.

How to protect yourself on the dark web

With all these botnets, dangerous websites, and countless websites with unsafe content on the dark web, it’s vital that you properly protect yourself and your device when you decide to visit the blackest corner of the internet. We already shortly discussed the option to use CyberGhost’s VPN in order to stay safe online. Here we’ll explain the use of a VPN a bit further and give some more suggestions to keep your device safe from any malicious threats.

VPN

A VPN will provide you with online freedom, security, and anonymity. It’s essential to use one if you want to stay undetected. The anonymity Tor tries to achieve, can be guaranteed with a VPN. Moreover, a VPN encrypts all your internet usage, whether it happens in your browser or outside of it. If you are looking for online protection, look no further than a VPN. Want to know more about this form of online protection? Read all about it in our general article on VPNs or take a look at our top 5 best VPN providers.

DuckDuckGo

DuckDuckGo is an anonymous alternative to search engines such as Google and Bing. You might want to use DuckDuckGo as a search engine within your Tor browser. DuckDuckGo functions just like any other search engine, but they do not track your searches and make sure websites can’t track you either. Add DuckDuckGo to your Tor-browser and VPN combination, and you’ll have the best possible privacy cocktail.

Antivirus and anti-malware

It’s always important to install good antivirus software on your device. Anti-malware programs are useful as well. These programs are especially important when you want to visit the dark web. This part of the internet is a hacker’s playground and criminals are constantly trying to infect your device with malware. Before you know it, your device will be hacked. Only the best and most up-to-date antivirus software will be able to protect you – and even then you still run the risk of infection.

Accessing the Dark Web

If you want to visit the dark web, we advise you to take the following steps:

  • Install a VPN (we suggest CyberGhost) on your device and switch it on
  • Make sure you’ve got up-to-date antivirus software on your device
  • Download and install the anonymous Tor browser
  • Start the Tor browser
  • Forbid scripts in the Tor browser (see below)
  • Optional: change the security settings in Tor (see below)
  • Surf the dark web, for example by starting at the Hidden Wiki, which you can find with the following URL: http://zqktlwi4fecvo6ri.onion/wiki/index.php/Main_Page (see below)

When browsing, always remember that the dark web can be a very dangerous place. Take our warnings to heart and don’t make it easy for malware and hackers to affect your device!

Forbid scripts in the Tor browser

Scripts on websites can be used to keep track of what you’re doing online: they become part of your digital fingerprint. Tor has included a nice feature in its browser to ensure no websites are able to run scripts on you. To activate this, go to the upper right corner of the browser and click on the symbol with the letter “S”. Select the option “Enable restrictions globally”, and you’re good to go.

Tor Browser Scripts Restrictions

It’s important to change these settings, because websites often run scripts without notifying you. This is especially dangerous on the dark web, because .onion-websites are unregulated and there’s a lot of malware going around. By blocking scripts, you reduce the chance of your computer getting infected. However, even blocking scripts doesn’t protect you from all harm and you should still be cautious of the websites you visit.

An easy way to check if you’ve managed to forbid scripts, is by keeping an eye on the “S” in the upper right corner. If there’s an exclamation mark next to it, websites could still be running. If there isn’t, you’re safe.

Change the security level in the Tor browser

Another wise change to make in your Tor browser is to turn up the security levels. You can do so by clicking the Tor logo in the upper left corner. Select “security settings”. A window will pop up. Here, you can change the security levels from low to medium to high. Obviously, the highest setting is the safest, but it does considerably slow down your internet connection. Moreover, the higher security settings will disable some of the browser’s features.

Tor has developed these security features to protect its users from the many sites on the dark web that’ll try to take over your device or spread malware. However, for an unlimited browsing experience on the dark web, it’s best to keep the security settings on low. Do watch out for weird or untrustworthy websites.

Tor Browser Security Settings

safety settings tor

Hidden Wiki

As a first stop when visiting the dark web, we suggest the Hidden Wiki. The Hidden Wiki provides links to search engines and websites, so you can navigate the dark web more easily. This makes the Hidden Wiki a good starting point for when you don’t know where to go.

hidden wiki

You can find the Hidden Wiki by copying the following URL into your Tor browser: http://zqktlwi4fecvo6ri.onion/wiki/index.php/Main_Page. The web addresses on the dark web do change constantly, but there are many websites on the surface web that will provide you with the right up-to-date URL for this particular page.

Legality of the Dark Web

Navigating the dark web isn’t illegal in most countries. However, it could make you look suspicious in the eyes of your local law enforcement. Most of the stuff sold on the dark web is illegal, so, obviously, purchasing those illegal items is prohibited. Since these goods are usually only found on the dark web, anyone surfing this part of the internet could be buying them. This is why governments might try to keep tabs on you if you visit the dark web.

As you might imagine, this dark unregulated part of the internet is the perfect place for illegal activity. It’s extensively used by criminals: the elusiveness of the dark web is ideal for drug deals and arms vendors. Moreover, research has found that terrorists use the dark web to communicate and spread their message. All in all, it might not be a place you want to find yourself as a law abiding citizen.

Even though the use of the dark web is legal, the illegal activities that regularly occur on there make the dark web a sketchy place. Therefore, it might not be the best part of the internet to visit regularly if you’re a good and law-abiding citizen.

Final Thoughts

We want to stress that we advise you NOT to use the dark web without first having taken the proper safety measures. The curiosity is understandable, but it isn’t worth exposing yourself to the dangers this unregulated part of the web. In the end, the dark web is mostly inhabited by criminals. If you do end up going there, always take precautions. A good VPN service and solid anti-malware and antivirus software are essential. Stay curious, but stay safe too!

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