If we view the internet as a vast ocean, the Dark Web is pretty much the bottom. This is the “hidden” part that you cannot access using a normal browser such as Google Chrome. Instead, you have to use the anonymous Tor browser.
There’s a bit of a myth going around that all you’ll find on the Dark Web are illegal web shops and shocking graphic content such as child pornography. Fortunately, this is not the case. Yes, those things are on there, but so is everything from forums for investigative journalists to pages about manga and anime. However, it’s true there are very real dangers on the Dark Web, such as hackers, malware, scammers and more.
As such, we recommend making sure you take some safety precautions. Fortunately, the Tor browser already offers some anonymity and protection. However, for extra privacy and safety, we also recommend using a VPN. We advise NordVPN in particular. Thanks to its strong encryption and no-logging policy it will greatly increase your security and privacy on the Dark Web.
The dark web is a hidden part of the worldwide web which isn’t accessible to people using popular browsers like Microsoft Edge, Mozilla Firefox, and Google Chrome. Dark web pages also won’t be indexed by search engines such as Google. In other words, you need a special browser (such as the Tor browser) and an idea of what to look for when you want to visit the dark web. Most internet users won’t find themselves on the dark web regularly, if at all. This is understandable because some parts of it are unsafe.
You may have heard some awful stories about the dark web. It’s usually described as a dangerous part of the internet where all sorts of shady business happens, from illegally selling drugs to hiring hitmen. Some of those claims are true, but the dark web consists of more than just criminal activity. It’s also a safe place for journalists and whistleblowers to share their stories, for example. Even regular citizens of countries with strict dictatorships can use it to communicate freely.
This article will tell you everything you need to know about the dark web. We’ll explain the difference between the deep and dark web, how it came to be, what the risks are, and how one can access it.
If you’re looking for a safe way to visit the dark web, we have prepared a comprehensive step-by-step plan to safely browse the dark web. Make sure to check all of our security measures before visiting the dark web. If you want to get acquainted with all the different terms and words that have to do with the dark web, you can visit our Dark Web Dictionary.
Video Explainer: What is the dark web?
We made a short animated video discussing what the dark web is exactly and why it is important. The article continues below the video.
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 up-to-date antivirus software running on your device. This way it’s more difficult to 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 browse the dark web. With it, your Internet Service Provider (ISP), governments, and hackers will have a much harder time figuring out what you’ve been doing online.
An excellent VPN for the dark web: NordVPN
A popular VPN service to use in combination with the Tor browser, is NordVPN. NordVPN is a high-quality VPN provider that allows you to protect multiple devices at the same time. This service offers strong encryption and an array of extra safety measures to choose from. This makes NordVPN a great provider to use when you venture onto the dark web. Moreover, they offer good customer support and are very user-friendly. You can read all about this provider in our full review of NordVPN.
- Excellent protection and a large network of servers
- Nice and pleasing application
- No logs
Note: Technically using the Tor browser (with a VPN for added security) is not the only way to visit the dark web. However, it’s definitely the safest way. Nowadays, the Tor project also offers a service that allows you to access dark web pages without actually downloading the Tor browser. This project is called Tor2web and can be used to navigate to dark web pages from your standard web browser (such as Google Chrome). Even so, the Tor project themselves indicate this isn’t nearly as safe as using the Tor browser to visit the dark web. Without Tor, it’s much easier for cybercriminals to uncover your identity and install malware on your PC. Therefore, we strongly advise you NOT to use Tor2web to visit the dark web!
Access the dark web with a smartphone
Do you wonder if it’s safe to access the dark web with your smartphone? This depends on what you are going to do on the dark web and which phone you are using. Tor supports Android, but the operating system is very vulnerable and it is not recommended to access the dark web with your Android device. Tor does not support iOS.
In general, smartphones are not very suitable when it comes to anonymity. Everything you do online can be tracked. With a smartphone, this is even easier because of the GPS tracking that many apps use. Moreover, you run the risk of your phone being hacked and your personal data being stolen.
Are you very curious about the dark web? Then it’s best to use a computer with extra security.
What is the Dark Web?
The dark web has many different visitors, including drug traders, computer nerds, swindlers, journalists who fight against censorship, and regular people who simply wish to communicate with others without the government looking over their shoulder. The latter often happens in countries like China and Iran where there is a lot of internet censorship.
To understand what the dark web is exactly, we need to differentiate between a few different terms. The internet is often described as consisting of three parts: the surface web, the deep web, and the dark web. Especially the terms deep web and dark web are often used in the wrong way, which can cause a lot of confusion. Here are a few main points you might want to keep in mind:
- The internet is a worldwide network.
- The web is a communication tool that uses the internet network.
- The web consists of the surface web, deep web and dark web.
Each of those three terms will be explained below.
The surface web
The surface web, along with the deep web, is the part of the internet most of us use every day. It’s accessible through regular browsers like Chrome, Safari, Firefox and so on. This very article is part of it: you can access it anywhere and at any time, as long as you have an internet connection and a browser. Other websites, including those of online stores and businesses, are also part of the surface web. This is the part of the web that can be reached easily through a search engine like Google.
If you visit a website as a regular visitor, you don’t get to see every part of that website, however. You’ll only see the surface. When you surf to Amazon without logging in, for example, you’ll encounter countless products, but you’ll only be able to see the website as a customer, not as a seller or administrator. To be able to look “behind the scenes”, you’ll need a username and password. Once you have those, you’ll be able to get past the surface and on to the deep web.
The deep web
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. In other words, a conventional search on Google won’t show you pages on the deep web. Mostly, deep web content consists of pages and databases that are only meant for a certain group of people within an organization. Your work database might be found in this part of the web. In order to get access, you need to know the exact web address (URL). In some cases, you need a password as well.
The deep web is by far the biggest part of the internet, estimated to make up between 90 and 95% of the complete worldwide web. Examples of pages on the deep web might contain the private data of companies, universities, libraries, hospitals, governments, international organizations, and so on.
The dark web
Finally, there is that part of the internet we call the dark web. It’s more difficult to reach than the surface or deep web since it’s only accessible through a special web browser 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 activities.
Some people refer to this part of the internet as the “deep web”, but this isn’t the right term. It’s true that the dark web is part of the deep web, but the dark web is even harder to reach. As we’ve describe above, a big part of the deep web is accessible through regular browsers, while this isn’t the case for the dark web. It’s impossible to reach the dark web through web browser such as Google Chrome or Edge.
The dark web functions a little differently from the surface web. Even when using Tor, 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. The address of search engine DuckDuckGo, for example, might be something like http://3g2upl4pq6kufc4m.onion. Moreover, the URLs of websites on the darknet change regularly. This means they could be considered hidden sites, as they aren’t so easy to find as most platforms on the surface or deep web would be. If you’d like to know more about a couple of popular pages on the dark web, make sure to check out our article “Websites on the Dark Web Worth Visiting”.
Is the Dark Web Legal?
In one word: yes. The dark web and the Tor browser are legal in most countries. Should you, however, choose to act on the dark web in a manner that isn’t in line with the law, that of course would be considered illegal. As such, we emphasize the importance of sticking to the law of the country you’re in.
Nevertheless, people often forget that the dark web and Tor are merely tools to exert your right to privacy and freedom of speech. The United Nations established privacy as a basic human right. The following articles confirm this:
- United Nations Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) 1948, Article 12
- International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) 1966, Article 17
- American Convention on Human Rights, Article 11
- American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, Article 5
- European Convention on Human Rights, Article 8
Over 130 countries that are part of the United Nations have laws concerning the protection of their citizens’ protection. Chances are, this will be the case where you live as well.
Are you allowed to browse the dark web?
In short, navigating the dark web isn’t illegal in most countries. This means that you are allowed to browse dark web websites. However, it could make you look suspicious in the eyes of your local law enforcement. A lot of the stuff sold on the dark web is illegal, so, obviously, purchasing those illegal items, such as illegal drugs, is prohibited. Since these goods are usually only available on the dark web, anyone surfing this part of the internet could buy them. This is why governments might try to keep tabs on you if you visit the dark web.
Even though the use of the dark web is legal in most countries, the illegal activities that regularly occur on there and the illegal content that can be found 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 normal, law-abiding citizen.
Why and How Did the Dark Web Come Into Existence?
The dark web wasn’t created by criminals who wanted an anonymous way to communicate. It was actually developed by the United States government. How did this happen?
Agents from several “three-letter agencies”, like the CIA, were stationed in many far-flung places. There was a truly global network of American spies who collected information and intelligence for the US. During the 1990s, information became increasingly digitized and there was no longer a need for these spies to relay their reports through old-fashioned media like radios or letters. The internet and new cryptographic techniques replaced those old communication media.
As all of this information could suddenly be sent through the internet, the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory started a program that would eventually become Tor (The Onion Router) in 1995. With Tor, the agencies had an encrypted line of communications with their field agents.
Anonymity for all
Around 1997 the project was passed on to the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA), who in turn gave it over to several civil rights groups. Now, the question of course is, why would the government hand this technique and network over to civilian advocacy groups? There are some people who believe that Tor was never really given up by the US government.
Another explanation is that they had to open up the anonymous network because every US agent had to be able to use it from anywhere across the world at any time. That made the network vulnerable to infiltration, which is why other people could start using it.
Moreover, if only U.S. intelligence agents would be using this network, then obviously any communication taken from this network would be highly valuable. Therefore, it would be better to open the network up to many other people, so that the intelligence communications would be awash in a sea of non-government communications. Like this, everybody would remain anonymous, and U.S. agents could use the network to relay their reports.
Why Don’t They Just Shut Down the Dark Web?
While the Tor network became available to anyone with an internet connection, more and more servers were being set up across the globe. The network, therefore, became far more decentralized. With each new connection in a different country, the U.S. jurisdiction over the internet became smaller. The power of a network resides in the fact that it cannot be turned off from just one location. If you pull the plug from the American side, the rest of the network does not cease to exist.
Apart from the inability of any country to completely shut down the network, the U.S. also benefits from having this network around — even if it also hosts illegal activities. It is still being used as a channel for covert communications by intelligence agencies. It is also one of the best tools that political activists have to stand up, leak, whistle-blow, etc. against authoritarian states that the U.S. is very critical of.
Whether it is Venezuela or Iran, the U.S. is glad that people have a tool like Tor around to make life harder for those regimes. Of course, this also applies to the US, as was made clear by the emergence of Wikileaks and the whistleblowing activities of Snowden.
A double-edged sword
Because of the above-mentioned reasons, the dark web can be both beneficial and dangerous at the same time. Because it is helpful in multiple ways, the US government does not want to shut it down. Even if they did, they would have to try to shut it down in its entirety and get the compliance and cooperation of dozens of countries that have no interest in cooperating with the US.
What national authorities are able to do is cooperate to close down certain sites that partake in illegal activity and hold their owners, administrators, users, etc. accountable. Often when a dark web website does get closed down, multiple agencies have worked together to make that happen. For example, if the US Department of Justice wants to shut down a Dutch marijuana-selling dark market, that would require the cooperation of the Dutch police, Europol, and possibly a number of other agencies and authorities. The following image showcases the number of agencies involved with seizing 1 dark market.
Taking down this particular website required the cooperation of at least ten different agencies from at least four different countries. The fact that all of these agencies had to cooperate to bring down this site shows how tricky it can be to take down parts of the dark web, let alone the entire dark web.
Accessing the Dark Web
If you want to visit the dark web you need to keep in mind that this can be dangerous if you do not take the right precautions. To visit the dark web in the safest possible way we have created a guide full of tips and tricks. Below you will find a slimmed-down version of this guide, with the bare essentials. It is crucial to remember that the following steps will keep you relatively safe, but in no way completely anonymous.
- Install a VPN (we suggest NordVPN) 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.
- Make sure the running of scripts in Tor is forbidden.
- Optional: change the security settings in Tor.
- Surf the dark web, for example by starting at the Hidden Wiki. The link is http://zqktlwi4fecvo6ri.onion/wiki/index.php/Main_Page
Finally, before getting on the dark web please remember that it 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! Additionally, make sure you don’t partake in any illegal activities. If you want to make sure that you have the best possible protection you can follow our guide for the dark web.
What is Tor?
Tor (the onion router) is free open-source software that functions as a web browser. Unlike web browsers such as Chrome, Firefox, and Edge, Tor aims to keep its users anonymous. In order to make this happen, the Tor browser channels your internet activities through several IP-addresses/hosts that represent the layers of an onion. Your searches travel through this 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 easiest 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 a .onion domain because they do not want everyone to know they exist. This could be because they simply want to be exclusive, or because they contain web content that’s 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 get access to 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. For even more details on Tor, visit our Tor browser page.
In short, using Tor (or a similar anonymous web browser) is necessary to access the dark web and also helps to make you more anonymous on the internet. Your IP address, for example, stays hidden. Check out these 10 reasons to hide your IP address. Please note, the Tor browser is not foolproof. This is why it is always recommended to also have a VPN running.
Tor over VPN or VPN over Tor?
You may not have realized it but it makes an actual difference if you connect with the Tor network while you are connected to a VPN or the other way around.
The added advantage of installing a VPN before getting on the Tor network is that your ISP or any other interested party (government agencies, hackers, etc.) won’t know that you have signed on to the Tor network because your internet traffic is already being encrypted. Sadly, the mere fact that you would want to sign on to an anonymous network such as Tor is enough to cast suspicion on yourself, in the eyes of certain groups.
In addition, although the Tor network is encrypted and anonymous, it won’t stop your ISP or anyone else from snooping on your internet traffic through your IP address from knowing that you signed on to Tor. That is of course, unless, you first connect with a VPN.
It is also possible to get a subscription to a VPN through the Tor network. This means that you first sign on to Tor, then in the Tor browser, you would go to the website of e.g. NordVPN and get a VPN. The added benefit would be that your ISP won’t know that you have any interest in a VPN service.
In our experience though, getting onto the Tor network generally looks far more suspicious due to its association with the dark web. That’s why we always recommend getting a good VPN subscription first. If you’re interested in learning more about good VPN alternatives and which one is right for you, have a look at our reviews.
The Hidden Wiki
Navigating the dark web can be quite difficult. Starting at a website like the Hidden Wiki can help you find your way. The Hidden Wiki provides links to web 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: it can lead you to otherwise ‘hidden sites’ on the dark web. There are some categories on the Hidden Wiki that you want to steer clear of. Always be cautious of the links you click, even on websites that seem legitimate.
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.
Another good place to start is our websites worth visiting on the dark web article.
The Dark Web: Myths
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. Although we cannot be certain that some of this behavior doesn’t take place on the dark web, the majority of rumors surrounding the dark web such as online hitmen or red rooms are pure fiction.
For example, one hitmen-for-hire website called Besa Mafia definitely existed, except that it never carried out any hits. It just stole money from gullible dark web users who wanted somebody dead. Still, many other questionable things, such as drugs and weapons, are available on the dark web.
Due to the existence of so many nefarious dark web sites, the dark web has gotten a very bad reputation. It’s often believed that anything and everything that happens on the dark web must be illegal. This isn’t true. The dark web is also a safe haven for journalists, whistleblowers, and citizens living under dictatorial regimes.
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 or have good reliable search engines in order to get to the right dark web sites. It’s quite hard to stumble onto the right website when all the web addresses are random combinations of digits and letters.
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 dark web sites
- Email services, fora, and other forms of anonymous online communication
- Bitcoin and cryptocurrency websites
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 existence of such markets is illegal, although some public figures, scientists, and academics have also highlighted some positive side-effects.
The Silk Road was one of the first well-known black markets on the dark web. Users openly talked about drug-use on the site and uploaded photos of their products. The website eventually gained the nickname “The eBay of Vice”. After several years of investigating the United States, authorities managed to track down the admin (Ross Ulbricht), who was working under the pseudonym “Dread Pirate Roberts” on the website. He was captured in San Francisco in October 2013 and the website was shut down.
However, after Ulbricht’s arrest, many imitation websites popped up. There are more black market websites available than ever on the dark web. There are different kinds of products being sold on there, from cheap Netflix accounts to credit card numbers and from weapons to drugs. Silk Road was the first of its kind, now there are many different ones competing to be the next.
Fraudulent or otherwise 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 many dark web sites that wouldn’t be tolerated on the surface web due to their web content. Sadly, you can actually find things such as animal abuse or child pornography there. Therefore, it might be wise to stay away from this part of the internet altogether.
Email services, forums, and other forms of 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 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 transparency, 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.
On the dark web, you can find hackers’ forum that trades in stolen data. This usually involves passport data, credit card numbers, and (digital) identities. This information is obtained by cybercriminals by hacking into systems. This illegally obtained information is then sold on the dark web.
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. On the dark web, some hackers sell the botnets they have created. In exchange for a lot of money, you can get control over a large network of infected devices.
Bitcoin and cryptocurrency websites
If you visit the dark web, you’ll find that almost everything is paid for in cryptocurrencies, like Bitcoin. These cryptocurrencies are online currencies that see worldwide use. More accurately said, cryptocurrencies are digital assets. The currency is tied to the value of a decentralized digital ledger, such as the blockchain protocol. This basically means that cryptocurrencies are not like regular currencies because their value and history of exchanges are visible on the blockchain, rather than a series of banks and other financial institutions. Because of the blockchain method, cryptocurrencies make anonymous exchanges possible that are ideal for shady business on the dark web.
The most well-known cryptocurrency, Bitcoin, is also in use outside of 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. Some new cryptocurrencies are constantly trying to improve on safeguarding the anonymity of the people using them.
We want to stress that we advise you NOT to use the dark web without first having taken the proper safety measures. Curiosity is understandable, but it isn’t worth exposing yourself to the dangers of this unregulated part of the web. In the end, there is criminal activity on the dark web.
If you do end up visiting the dark web, always take precautions. A good VPN service and solid anti-malware are essential, but still leave you exposed to many threats. There are many more steps you need to undertake in order to really stay safe on the dark web. This step-by-step plan will explain exactly how you could do that. Ultimately, you access the dark web at your own peril. Stay curious, but stay safe too!
Do you need a quick answer to your question? Here are some frequently asked questions and answers concerning the dark web.
The dark web is a collective term for websites that are only accessible using the Tor-browser. These websites are not accessible via the ‘surface web’. In the media, the dark web is often portrayed as something dangerous, but there are also legitimate websites on the dark web that deal with legal subjects.
The surface web comprises all of the websites that can be visited through browsers such as Google Chrome, Microsoft Edge, and Mozilla Firefox. The surface web is the internet as most people know it.
The deep web is made up out of sites that can only be visited by using a password or other means of authentication. Think of your email inbox and Facebook page, but also the files in the cloud at work. In some countries, the term ‘deep web’ is used to refer to the ‘dark web’.
To access the dark web, you have to use the Tor-browser. This is a special browser that allows you to visit .onion addresses. These .onion addresses make up the dark web.
A .onion address is a web address that can only be visited using the Tor-browser.
Tor stands for ‘The Onion Router’ and is a special browser that allows you to visit dark web sites.
On the dark web you can find many different kinds of sites. From book-review websites and regular websites that have a .onion variant (such as news websites) to drug market sites and pornographic sites. Most websites on the dark web can be put in one (or multiple) of the following categories:
- Illegal marketplaces for drugs, weapons, etc.
- Websites for whistleblowers to disclose their information.
- Pornographic websites.
- News sites.
- Forums and review sites where all kinds of topics are discussed, both legal and illegal.
Yes, the dark web is legal. However, it is possible that some websites or content on dark web websites are illegal.
The dark web can only be visited with special web browsers such as the Tor-browser. Through the Tor-browser you can visit .onion web addresses (URLs). With browsers like Google Chrome, Microsoft Edge, and Mozilla Firefox you cannot visit these dark web websites.