You may 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 VPNs and the Tor browser and how these tools are essential if you want to travel the dark web. Then we have a quick guide you can use to access the dark web relatively safely. If you really want to stay safe, we have prepared a comprehensive 15-step plan to safely browse 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.
- Very user-friendly
- High quality for a low price
- Torrents and Netflix possible
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 access, 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 browsers 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.
The dark web dictionary:
The dark web is full of specialized jargon and technical talk. Lots of people active on the dark web use abbreviations that are unclear to newcomers. That’s why I short summary of regularly-used terms can come in handy.
- 2FA: Two-factor-authentication. This is simply a way to better secure your account. Rather than relying solely on your password, you now have to enter a second type of identification-method to gain access to your account. Usually this is done with a smartphone.
- Alphabay: This was the biggest dark web market after the shutdown of the original Silk Road. When that shut down, most buyers flocked to Alphabay. It didn’t survive for long though. The founder allegedly hung himself in a Thai prison after he was captured red-handed.
- Blockchain: This is the underlying technology of Bitcoin. It functions as a public ledger to ensure compliance across its users. It theoretically eliminates the need for private banks.
- Bridges: Bridges are a codes that you can use to access the Tor network even though this network is banned by your country. A bridge will make it appear as though you are entering the network from a different location and are therefore not restricted to your local barriers. Some people also use it as a way to circumvent their ISP from knowing they accessed the Tor network. This is however not necessary and frowned upon, as this further limits the options available to people who live in repressive states.
- BTC: This is the acronym given to Bitcoins. It is is still the most widely-used and popular cryptocurrency to date.
- Clearnet: Simply put, the clearnet is everything you can find on the internet via a search engine such as Google. These are all the websites which are publicly available, do not require any kind of registration or log-in credentials. However, this does not mean that websites that require a log-in are necessarily not part of the clearnet.
- CP: Short for Child Pornography. Unfortunately, the dark web contains an even darker corner and that hosts a number of pedophile networks through which their members are able to exchange illicit materials of children. There have been various attempts by law enforcement of a wide number of countries and also hacktivists such as the group Anoynmous to try to bring down this behavior. Alas, the problem has not abated. Occasionally, perpetrators are arrested and convicted. However, the vast majority of these communities persist and there does not appear to be a solution around the corner.
- Darknet: The darknet is often used as a synonym for the dark web, although this is not entirely accurate. The darknet encompasses a wider range of the internet that is not technologically restricted to hidden services such as those offered by the Tor network. Rather, any kind of perceived out-of-the-norm behavior can be subsumed under the definition of the darknet, even if it is not technically speaking a hidden service. For example, a bulimic finding encouragement on a clearnet website could be considered part of the “darknet” within the framework of Bartlett
- DD: Short for “Daisy’s Destruction”. This is the most infamous video on the dark web. It features a severely underage Filipina girl (younger than 3 years old) being brutally tortured and sexually abused. The producer of the film, Australian Peter Scully, was apprehended because of international research and police teams. Scully is currently spending time in a Filipino prison, awaiting further trials.
- HS: Short for ‘Hidden Services’. These are services found on the dark web that are hidden prescisely because they do not rtack the IP address of its users nor does it broadcast its own IP address. Communication is allowed, yet all of the channels are obscured.
- LEA/LE: Short for ‘Law Enforcement Agencies/ Law Enforcement’. This is an acronym for Tor network users who wish to evade the scrutiny of law enforcement. These actors are present and active on dark markets and they will try to frame you. Know your rights and do not do anything illegal. There is nothing illegal about researching the dark web or browsing the dark web.
- Mystery Boxes: A YouTube craze wherein overexcited and poorly-acting individuals from YouTube try to bolster their channels’ viewers through the thrill of the dark web — despite the fact that dark web vendors do not waste their time sending random strangers convoluted clues and schemes for other people to publicly figure out on YouTube. The videos found on YouTube are all contrived.
- OS (Live or Host): Short for Operating System. The live OS might be an OS that is temporarily loaded from some software such as VirtualBox. The Host OS is the operating system from which you are running the computer, i.e. Windows or MacOS.
- PGP: Short for ‘Pretty Good Privacy’. This is a cryptographic method designed by Phil Zimmerman and it is used by hundreds of thousands of people on a daily basis to communicate anonymously and safely.
- Red Rooms: Red Rooms are the favorite myth of the Dark Web. Many people claim that these types of websites exist where a number of people pay a fee, gain access to a live stream where there is a torturer and a victim. The Paid visitors of the stream would then be able to order the torturer into acting out any depraved desires the streamers might have. Thankfully, to this no actual report of a verified Red Room has ever come in. As far as we know, red rooms are depraved fantasies rather than morbid realities.
- Satoshi Nakamoto: The name is most likely a pseudonym for the creator/architect of Bitcoin. It is possible that multiple people collaborated to create it.
- Silk Road: This was the original ‘success story’ of the dark web. An ambitious and clever young man set up a completely free-market economy (with the exception of cruel things like slavery, murder, identity theft and so on) for people to compete in. It was shut down in 2013. For more information, read this section.
- Tails: Tails stands for: “The Amnesiac Incognito Live System.” This is a live version of Linux that helps you install the OS on some device or other
- Tor: The Onion Router: This is the protocol with which you are able to arrive at an anonymous network (or the dark web).
- Vendor: A Vendor is person that tries to sell goods or services on the dark web on a particular market.
- VPN: This is short for a virtual private network. The website has an entire section dedicated to explaining VPNs here.
Why and how did the dark web come into existence?
The internet was originally an outgrowth of the Arpanet (Advanced Research Projects Agency). The aim of the agency was to connect several American university computers together in order to facilitate the sharing of academic data sets during the late 1960s. This small network was drastically expanded during 1973 when connections were made with England by installing telephone cables across the Atlantic ocean with an IT professor, Peter Kirstein, of the University College of London. He would later confess that “I had absolutely no idea what it would become”.
Slowly the network expanded across the globe and offered new methods for people to communicate with one another. It quickly became apparent that people preferred speaking to each other over this network rather than share data sets with each other, which was the original purpose for establishing the network. In 1978, the Bulletin Board System (BBS) was invented and it was shortly followed by Usenet in 1979.
During all of these developments the United States was also spreading its influence across the globe. Agents from several “three-letter agencies” such as the CIA were stationed in many far-flung places. There was a true global network of American spies who collected information and intelligence for “uncle Sam”. During the 1990s, information became increasingly digitized and there was no longer a need for these spies to relay their reports via old-fashioned media such as radios or letters. Because of the internet and new cryptographic techniques, all of the information could suddenly just be sent through the internet.
This was because, around 1995, the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory started a program that would eventually become Tor (The Onion Router). Around 1997 the project was passed on to the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARP, who in turn gave it over to several civil rights groups. Now, the question of course it, why would the government give this technique and network over to civilian advocacy groups? There are some people, in fact, 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. 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 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 down from just one location. If you pull the plug from the American side, the rest of the network does not cease to exist. The rest of the network just carries on.
Apart from the inability of the any one state 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 dissidents 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, sometimes it can come back around on the US, as evidenced by the Wikileaks and Snowden leaks.
As such, 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 and hold their owners, administrators, users etc. accountable. Often when a dark web site 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. This site was taken down by, including but not limited to:
- The US department of Justice (US)
- Europol (Europe)
- National Crime Agency (Eng)
- Policia General (Spa)
- Cyber Crimes Unit Washington (US)
- United States Postal Inspection Service (US)
- Joint Criminal Opioid and Darknet Enforcement (US)
- BundesKrimilanalamt (Ger)
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.
Tor (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 a .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. For even more details on the Tor browser, visit our Tor browser page.
In short, Tor 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, Tor browser is not foolproof. This is why it is always recommended to also have a VPN running.
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
- 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!
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 you in the eyes of certain groups. And although the Tor network is encrypted and anonymous, it won’t stop your ISP or anyone else 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 NordVPN or Cyberghost. The added benefit would be that your ISP won’t know that you have an interest in a VPN service. In our experience though, getting onto the Tor network is generally considered far more suspicious due to its association with the dark web.
The 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.
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 10 websites worth visiting on the dark web article.
The comprehensive 15 step plan to stay safe on the dark web
- Use a mobile live OS (optional)
- Use a VPN to encrypt your internet traffic
- Download Tor from its official website
- Take security precautions
- Forbid scripts in the Tor browser
- Change the security level in the Tor browser
- Check if there’s not an IP-, DNS-, or WebRTC leak
- Be aware of common dark web myths
- Use additional anonymous services
- Avoid logins, subscriptions, and payments
- Know where you’re going
- If you’re going to buy something on the dark web, use cryptocurrency
- Close everything when you’re done
- Realize that you are never 100% safe
- Consult online guides, blogs, search engines, chatsites etc.
Bonus: Tips for those who wish to stay truly anonymous
1. Use a live mobile OS (optional)
Anonymity is the most important thing to safeguard on the dark web. Not because the dark web is illegal (it isn’t), but because the most anonymous you are – the safer you are. Unfortunately, Windows 10 is a privacy nightmare.
- Your data is continually synced: browser history, open websites, app settings, and wifi hotspots are all tracked
- Your device is automatically linked to a unique advertisement ID for third parties
- Cortana collects data such as: your keystrokes, search results, microphone audio messages, calender information, music playlists, and even your online purchases
- Microsoft can collect all sorts of personal data: your identity, your passwords, habits and interests, user data, contacts, and locations
If a hacker manages to get into your system via the dark web, all of this information can potentially be exploited by that hacker. Many of these settings in Windows can easily be turned off (though not all!). You can do this by going through the settings in Windows or by using a nifty piece of software like W10Privacy.
A much better idea than going on the dark web via Windows 10 is to use a live mobile OS.
Tails, Whonix, ZeusGuard, or Qubes
Tails (The Amnesiac Incognito Live System) is a live version of Linux OS that won’t leave any trace of your activity or the OS on your computer.
This free OS can be downloaded onto a USB flash drive or DVD. You do not have to install it on your computer. You simply plug in the USB flash drive or insert the DVD when you want to browse without leaving a trace and load the OS. It cannot save cookies on your hard drive unless you personally direct it to.
Tails also has the Tor browser pre-installed. The Tor browser is essential for getting on the dark web and installing Tails on a flash drive saves you the trouble of installing Tor on your PC or laptop.
Whonix is much like Tails in that it is a live OS that runs next to your regular OS. In other words, you can use Windows, Mac, or Linux and just use Tails or Whonix on the side. Everything you do on Whonix is routed through Tor. The difference is that Whonix runs simultaneously to your regular OS through a virtual machine. This makes logging in and out of the dark web much faster and simpler. It arguably makes it also less safe. Their homepage has detailed instructions.
Qubes OS is a single user, desktop operating system with a bunch of virtual machines running inside it. It only has about 30k users. It is arguably your safest option because the OS is comprised of several different virtual machines. Edward Snowden, for example, uses Qubes OS to safeguard his anonymity.
Live OS do not support VPNs
It is very important to note, however, that many live OS do not support VPNs. This is for a good reason. These types of operating systems run on isolated virtual machines, meaning there is very little to connect it to your identity or anything else on your computer. In this case, having a subscription to a VPN might actually make you more detectable than just using the Tor network. This is because VPNs, in this case, would introduce a permanent entry guard or a permanent exit node. This just means that, ironically enough, the VPN introduces a new method for detection.
So, when using a live OS –> Use Tor, but not VPN (you can skip step 2 and 3 and go on to step 4)
When using Windows, Mac, or Linux –> Use VPN and then Tor (go to step 2)
Of course, not everyone feels comfortable downloading and using an entire new operating system. IF you choose to not access the dark web via Tails, make sure to follow these next steps.
2. Use a VPN to encrypt your internet traffic
Even if you use the Tor browser, your traffic can still be traced back to you by anyone with sufficient time, resources, and know-how. In fact, the Tor browser was found to have a vulnerability in 2017 that in some instances leaked real IP addresses. This problem was especially serious for MacOS and Linux users. If these users had taken the precaution to also have a VPN operating in the background, however, their real IP addresses would not have been compromised.
Therefore, it is highly advisable that you use a VPN in addition to Tor while browsing the dark web. VPNs encrypt your web traffic and make sure your IP address is hidden from any hackers or government surveillance, even if there is a leak within the Tor browser. For more information on VPNs, see our detailed explanation. Please be aware, however, that not every VPN provider is equally reliable. Free versions often suffer from slow service, data limits and security leaks. For an overview of some of the best and most reliable VPN providers, take a look at our Top 5 VPN providers page.
Please take note, however, that many live mobile OS like Tails do not support the use of a VPN. If you are using one of these live mobile OS, you can skip this step of installing a VPN and go straight to taking some extra security precautions.
Another possibility, if you don’t feel like going through the hassle of selecting a VPN or going through a live OS, is to just put down a $120 or so for some hardware like Anonabox. This is essentially a special router which has been pre-programmed to keep you anonymous on the internet. Not even this is a 100% anonymous, though.
3. Download Tor from its official website
The mobile live OS such as Tails and Whonix already have the Tor browser pre-installed so you can skip ahead to step 4. For Windows, Mac, Linux or Andoid users, however, this is important.
The Tor browser is an interesting target for hackers and government agencies. Fake versions of the Tor browser have been created to either breach users before they even access the dark web or monitor the behavior of a user while on the dark web. The latter approach is especially attractive to government agencies.
As such, you should always download the Tor browser from its official website: https://www.torproject.org/
Make sure you always download the latest version of the browser and keep it up to date at all times. That way, you will ensure you have the latest security safeguards in place.
Android users can use Orbot. This app is also brought to you by the makers of the Tor Project. Iphone users unfortunately cannot use any kind of Tor products without jailbreaking their device first.
4. Take security precautions
Before you open the Tor browser, you should:
- Close all non-essential apps on your machine, e.g., Netflix, password managers.
- Stop unnecessary services from running, e.g., Onedrive.
- Cover your webcam with a piece of paper. It is shockingly easy to gain access to your webcam, even without you noticing.
- Have a reputable and fully updated antivirus program installed on your device.
- Install quality and up-to-date anti-malware software. For more general information on malware, see our malware section.
- Turn off your location on your device. Your location can be found through your IP-address as well as your device itself.
For Windows 10, you can turn off your location from Settings > Privacy > Location > Turn off location + erase location history
For macOS: System Preferences > Security & Privacy panel > Privacy > uncheck “Enable location Services”
For Tails or other live OS: you will not have to worry about your location being leaked.
The dark web is crawling with hackers who will seize any opportunity to exploit any detail you may have overlooked. If a hacker from the dark web manages to hack your system, all the apps and services you have running in the background are open to attack.
Essentially, the best way to stay safe on the dark web is to make sure that a potential hacker has little or no information about you to work with. This means you should not randomly browse around the dark web or give out personal information. Do not click on any suspicious links. Leave as few traces of your presence as possible. These precautions will decrease the odds of you being targeted.
Once you have opened the Tor browser, do not change the size of Tor browser screen. Oddly enough, this will keep you safer.
It also doesn’t hurt to check how well your Tor browser (or your everyday browser for when you’re not on the dark web) is secured against tracking. Panopticlick allows you to check with just one click if your browser is safeguarded against: advertisement-trackers, invisible trackers, so-called “acceptable advertisements” and your digital fingerprint.
5. 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.
It is important to change these settings because websites often run scripts without notifying you. This is especially dangerous on the dark web as .onion-websites are unregulated and there is 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. Caution should therefore still be exercised when browsing the dark web.
In order to verify if you have successfully forbidden scripts in the Tor browser, look at the “S” in the upper right-hand corner. When there is an exclamation mark next to it, websites could still be running unauthorized scripts. If there is no exclamation mark, you’re safe from any unwanted scripts.
If you want to disable scripts for your everyday usage in a different browser, you can best do this through an extension.
Chrome or Brave: Scriptsafe
6. Change the security level in the Tor browser
It is also possible to increase the security level of the Tor browser itself. You can do this by clicking the Tor logo in the upper left-hand corner. Select security settings. A window will pop up, enabling you to change the security level from medium to high.
Tor has included this security setting with the exact intent to safeguard its user from the many sites on the dark web that might try to take control over your device or spread malware. This setting is nevertheless restrictive as it does not allow you the unlimited browsing experience of the dark web. In the end, it is a decision between safety and access. We recommend sticking to the highest security setting.
7.Check if there’s an IP,- DNS-, or WebRTC leak
It is possible that even after all of these safety precautions you are still running an IP- or DNS-leak. What this means is that through some kind of bug or leak, your IP-address is still traceable for third parties. WebRTC is incorporated into most browsers to allow real-time communications like voice and video calls. This allows you to talk straight from your browser by using your webcam, microphone or headset. The problem is that most voice calls are sent through a peer-to-peer connection, which requires your exact IP-address. So, if you are in Google Chrome, for example, and you have WebRTC running, your actual IP-address will be revealed even when you are using a VPN. This problem is especially prevalent with Google Chrome. To subvert this feature, you can install this Chrome extension.
To check if your connection is truly anonymized, go to the following websites:
On these pages you can see if your real IP-address is visible. All of these websites essentially do the same thing. At the top of the page your public IP-address is visible and underneath that is your location. If your VPN is working properly, your real address and IP-address won’t be visible anywhere on the page.
8. Be aware of common dark web myths
There are many myths about the dark web. Being aware of them will give you a better perspective of what you can expect and hope to do on the dark web. By being aware of these myths you are less likely to fall prey to a hacker or scammer. These are some of the most common myths:
|All cybercrime takes place on the dark web||Most cybercrime takes place on the regular web|
|The dark web is massive||Compared to the deep web, the dark web is relatively small. The deep web is comprised of academic databases, banking portals, corporate data, company networks, webmail accounts, and much more. This is far larger than the 250.000 to 400.000 websites that exist on the dark web|
|The dark web is only for Tech pros or nerds.||If you take the right precautions, anyone can get on the dark web relatively safely. The Tor browser, VPNs, and Tails or other live OS are available to anyone and are not too difficult to use for a beginner|
|The dark web is illegal||The dark web itself is not illegal. The Tor browser that you need to access the dark web; however, uses some very strong encryption that is illegal in some countries. As such, the dark web is indirectly illegal in some countries. These countries tend to have more far-reaching internet restrictions anyway. These are countries like China, Russia, Belarus, Turkey, Iraq, and North-Korea|
|Anything you can do on the dark web is illegal||The dark web itself is not illegal, nor is everything that happens on there illegal. Whether or not something is illegal on the dark web depends on the country from which you access the dark web. For clarity’s sake: just apply this rule of thumb: if something is illegal in the country you’re in, it will also be illegal to do that same thing on the dark web. So, if it’s illegal to sell drugs offline, it’s also illegal to sell drugs on the dark web. There are sometimes nuances though. When in doubt, always be sure to find out what is legal and what is not|
9. Use additional anonymous services
Anonymous search engines
For a good private search engine, you can use the search engine DuckDuckGo instead of Google. While most search engines won’t work on the dark web, DuckDuckGo does. The onion address for it is https://3g2upl4pq6kufc4m.onion/
Safe passwords are even more important on the dark web than on the regular (surface) web. If you don’t want to go through the hassle of coming up with a decent password every single time and safely storing them you can get a good password manager. Two good options are Bitwarden and LessPass. Both are free and open-source. The best option is to add them to your browser (if that’s possible).
If you are going to download or upload files on the dark web it might be a good idea to get them encrypted. A reliable, free, and open-source encryption tool is PeaZip. This tool supports 181 different file-types. Unfortunately, PeaZip isn’t available to macOS users. An alternative for Mac users is Keka.
If you want to share files anonymously then OnionShare is a very good option. It is available for Windows, macOS, and Ubuntu. Dropbox and other file-sharing software like it are notorious for not respecting the privacy of its users or data. With OnionShare you can share files of all sizes through a webserver. An alternative is Firefox Send. Although it was designed by the creators of Firefox, you can also use it outside of the Firefox browser. With this service you can share files up to 1 GB, or 2,5 GB if you create an account – which we do not recommend.
Anonymous office services
If you’re looking for an alternative to Google Docs with better security, have a look at Etherpad. This software is completely open-source and you do not even need an account to use it. Another option is Cryptpad. You can use it to write texts, create spreadsheets, or make flashy presentations. Only people who are given the access keys can get access to it.
For (video)calling there are number of good services available such as Linphone or Mumble. Linphone is free and open-source, it can be used for Windows macOS, IOS, Android, and GNU/Linux. The software has end-to-end encryption. Mumble is a little different. It is designed specifically for gaming, doesn’t keep any logs and also doesn’t record any conversations. It doesn’t have any end-to-end encryption though. The software is available for Windows, macOS X, IOS, and Ubuntu.
Sending anonymous messages
Ricochet or Signal provide more secure means of text messaging than your standard messaging app. Another good option is TorChat. This application is part of Tor and allows you to chat with anyone also using it. You don’t need to register. TorChat automatically assigns you a numerical ID that you have to send to the other person you wish to talk to. You can do this by telling the other person directly (face to face) or by sending your ID number through an encrypted email (see next step). This will allow a great degree of anonymity when chatting you cannot generally get anywhere else.
Sending emails safely and anonymously
A highly praised online email service is ProtonMail. Their mail accounts have standard end-to-end encryption. Emails sent through Gmail or Hotmail are most easily intercepted and/or deciphered. Encrypted email services are therefore a much safer option. These services do tend to have more rigid data limits. So if you plan to excusively use encrypted email accounts then you might want to create more than one. Here is a list of encrypted email providers.
It is also possible to create a temporary email address(a so-called burner). The advantage of this is that you can create an online account at any website, then confirm your registration and then never worry about getting your inbox bombarded with useless emails from said website. Some well-known temporary email address providers are: TempMail, 10minutemail, and Guerrillamail.
If you really do not want to switch to a different email address for you dark web browsing, then at least make sure your standard email account gets some extra protection through PGP (pretty good privacy). This can be done by adding an additional service on top of your regular email account like Mailvelope. This service works with almost any provider like Gmail or Hotmail, and many more. Please be aware though this is a far less safe option than a temporary email address or an encrypted email address. A lot of information about you can be backtracked through your regular email address.
10. Avoid logins, plugins, subscriptions, and payments
If you wish to browse the dark web safely, anonymity is your best option. Should you choose to log into certain user- or bank accounts, your anonymity will be compromised. It is never a good idea to log into your online bank account while on the dark web. Once you are logged into a user account, every activity on that website can be attributed to that profile, Tor or not. Therefore, it is best to not log into any profile or account while surfing the dark web.
Some websites require you to have an account to even gain access, however. In this case, you can create a randomized and disposable email address, create an account that is not in any way identifiable to you personally and use this account to browse through the website. Creating a user account that cannot be means not using your name, birthday, hobbies, interests, location, etc. The more random and anonymous it is, the better. For more help on how to create a secure password, take a look at this guide.
Plugins are widespread in many browsers today. Many of these plugins can gather personal information about you, your location, and your online behavior. Therefore, it is better not to have these enabled while searching the dark web.
11. Know where you’re going
The dark web is not equipped with a search index such as Google. You have to know where you want to go before you get onto the dark web. This means having specific URLs ready in order to get to the right pages. It is not wise to randomly visit websites, as it is easy to arrive somewhere you do not want to be. The dark web hosts some of the most unsavory elements of the internet, such as child pornography sites.
In order to have some sense of direction on the dark web, there are directory sites that can aid you in finding what you want. One of the best places to start for both inexperienced and experienced users is “The Hidden Wiki“.
Other good places to help you navigate the dark web are:
12. If you are going to buy something on the dark web, use cryptocurrency
The dark web features a variety of marketplaces (most famously the now defunct Silk Road). Many of these marketplaces are likely to sell items that are illegal in your country. You should thus be careful and mindful of your country’s laws before purchasing anything on the dark web.
However, not everything for sale on the dark web is illegal. And it is also possible you may want to buy something legally, yet anonymously. Not everything you buy should necessarily be public knowledge. All financial transactions on the dark web go through cryptocurrency rather than regular bank transfers or credit cards. This is to ensure anonymity for both you and the seller.
Bitcoin tends to be the first name that people think of when they hear cryptocurrency. It has a well-known name and is often seen as safe, reliable, and anonymous. This is not entirely true, however.
Bitcoin has a number of privacy issues such as address reuse, connected nodes, tracking cookies, and blockchain analytics. This means that it is possible for someone to link your personal information to a transaction. As such, a preferable option is to use a privacy-focused coin. Two of the most popular are Monero and Zcash, though there are other options available as well. A good overview can be found here.
Before you buy anything on the dark web though, make sure you are aware of country’s laws and how cryptocurrencies work.
13. Close everything when you are done
When you finish browsing the dark web, make sure to close all of your browser windows and any other related content. If you used Tails, shut down the operating system and go back to your regular OS. To be on the safe side: do a quick reboot.
14. Realize that you are never 100% safe
Even if you faithfully follow all of the previous steps, you are still not guaranteed complete safety on the dark web. You can unintentionally give out personal information or click on a wrong link. Hackers are constantly finding new ways around security systems and settings. Nor will any of the previous steps keep you safe from compromised hardware. If your computer hardware is infected with some type of malware, any internet use is already compromised. In short, there is a lot you can do to improve your safety on the dark web, but nothing is ever foolproof.
15. Consult online guides, blogs, search engines, chatsites etc.
It can be very confusing finding your way around the dark web. That’s why we have collected a few resources you can utilize to help you further along. You do not have to rely on directories alone. Please be aware, these sites may contain dodgy characters or even outright malware. Nothing on the dark web is ever really safe. Trust no one, use your common sense, and enter at your own risk.
You can ask for help from somebody from a chat service. Please remember that you cannot just trust anyone who will talk to you on there.
Some extra information on anonymous cryptocurrencies
How does Monero work?
The Hub: http://thehub7xbw4dc5r2.onion/index.php
Hidden Answers: http://answerszuvs3gg2l64e6hmnryudl5zgrmwm3vh65hzszdghblddvfiqd.onion/
Not Evil: http://hss3uro2hsxfogfq.onion/
New York Times: https://www.nytimes3xbfgragh.onion/
Privacy News: https://privacyintyqcroe.onion/
Bonus: Tips for those who to stay truly anonymous
If you have followed this step-by-step guide, you really do not have to worry about anyone tracking you on the dark web. The level of precaution you have to exercise on the dark web is dependent on what you plan to do on there. This is sometimes referred to as your “threat model”. If you just want to try the dark web version of Facebook or the BBC – then just putting the Tor-browser settings to safest should be more than enough. If you want to sign up on some forum, you use Tails or Whonix. If you want to elude any form of tracking, you are going to fail. Being connected to the internet is tantamount to being trackable. There are, however, some more extreme measures you can take to remain anonymous. Below are some pro-tips that really won’t be necessary for the average dark web user.
- Never type anything directly into the Tor browser
There is an astonishing amount of ways a person can be identified online other than through an IP address. Masking your identity behind a VPN is a very good idea and you should use VPNs if you wish to remain anonymous online. It is not nearly enough, however, if you have someone or some organization following you on the dark web. There are many other ways through which you can be de-anonymized. Every computer has a unique MAC address that is coupled to your device’s network interface card. Your location can be narrowed down fairly accurately through WiFi-triangulation (even with some VPNs). Most damningly, browser fingerprinting can assign a unique profile to you as a way to recognize you.
If that’s not enough, there is another improbably identification method around. Your typing-fingerprint. It might sound strange, but you have a way of typing that is unique to just you. The pace with which you type, the specific keys you repeatedly hit incorrectly, the pauses you insert between specific parts – they all add up to form a unique pattern of typing. They are all so-called “identifiers” which can be used to recognize you. This is why you should be hesitant to type anything directly into the Tor browser in case somebody is registering your keystrokes through an aperture in the Tor browser. The way to circumvent this particular attack vector is to:
- Open Notepad, or whatever equivalent piece of software on your OS, next to the Tor browser
- Type any message you want to send on the Tor browser in notepad .
- Copy and paste the message from notepad into the browser.
The odds of someone trying to identify you through typing behavior analysis is astronomically small. Still, it is possible. By typing everything into notepad first you make it just that tiny bit harder for someone to identify you.
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 hit-men is apparently only one of the available examples. It’s unclear whether these extreme stories are actually true, or whether they’re mere speculation. For example, one hitmen-for-hire website called Besa Mafia definitely existed, except that it never carried out any hits. It was just stealing money from gullible dark web users who wanted somebody killed. Still, many other questionable things, such as drugs and weapons, are available on the dark web.
Due to the existence of so many nefarious websites the dark web has gotten a very bad reputation. It is often believed that anything and everything that happens on the dark web must be illegal. This is not true. The dark web is also safe haven for journalists, whistleblowers, and citizens living under dictatorial regimes. Moreover, some of the more shady websites can also have positive side-effects. This guide to the dark web will try to take a nuanced approach, highlighting both positive and negative consequences. In any case, we do not encourage or discourage the use of the dark web. We only want our readers to be safe if they decide for themselves to venture into the dark recesses of the 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
- 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. For instance, Dr. James Martin has given a Ted talk on the “brighter side of darknet drug dealing”. An interesting case to discuss the nuances of such a market is the founder of the most infamous drug-dealing dark web marketplace: Ross Ulbright and the Silk Road.
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 Ulbricht down, who was going 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. Silk Road was the first of its kind, now there are many different ones competing to be the next.
Ross Ulbricht: criminal, entrepreneur or political idealist?
Ulbricht is a strong believer in the political philosophy of “libertarianism”. This is a well-known political philosophy and has many followers around the globe. Adherents tend to believe in the supremacy of individualism, individual rights, the creation of spontaneous order, free markets, and the least amount of government interference as is humanly possible. Many libertarians would argue that the use of drugs might be bad for your health and inadvisable, but it is still a matter of personal choice and individual rights. In this case, doing drugs is just as much a personal choice as is the eating of fast food while you are already obese.
Furthermore, libertarians would argue that the decriminalization of drugs would rob drug dealers of their power. Individuals would be free to purchase these products from a legitimate and safe source, thereby bypassing dangerous and violent criminals. Who in their right mind would go buy drugs off a criminal if it can be purchased legally from a safe source?
The Silk Road was also a platform that provided complete anonymity. This way, drug dealers were not capable of fighting over territory as no one knew who or where the other person was. There were no threats, no extortion, no gun fights over territory to sell drugs. Instead, drug dealers started acting as legitimate companies, trying to compete over customers by offering special deals and improving on customer service. The Silk Road even hosted medical doctors who could advise on “sensible” substance use. This would be manifestation of what the libertarians called spontaneous order. There was no police or government necessary to facilitate this kind of marketplace.
As said, libertarianism is a legitimate political philosophy with many adherents all across the world. Nevertheless, it is also a very convenient philosophy for someone who wants to get rich by facilitating the sale of drugs via the web. Ulbricht received two life-sentences for his role in setting up and maintaining the platform. Many people think this is far too harsh a sentence. An online petition for his release can be found on https://freeross.org. It has been signed over 210.000 times, including by many prominent scientists, academics, public figures, and politicians. Some argue that Ulbricht never sold any drugs, but merely provided the platform. Nevertheless Ulbricht did manage to acquire as much as $28 million in cryptocurrency through commissions on each sale on his platform.
There is still no clear international regulatory framework on the internet, cybercrime, and the dark web. De advent of cryptocurrencies (also a libertarian project, incidentally) along with a growing perception that the “war on drugs” isn’t working has caused more and more people to call for a reformed policy on drugs and cybercrime. It is entirely possible that the Silk Road case and Ulbricht will be the subject of much discussion. The case is still controversial. Moreover, shutting down Silk Road and locking Ulbricht up has done absolutely nothing to curb drug-use, drug sales, or even online drug sales. If anything, the problem is now even more prevalent.
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 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.
Email services, fora, 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 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 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.
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 and cryptocurrency websites
If you visit the dark web, you’ll find that almost everything is paid for with cryptocurrencies. These cryptocurrencies are online currencies that can be used worldwide. To be more precise, cryptocurrencies are digital assets tied to the value of a decentralized digital ledger such as the blockchain protocol. This basically means that cryptocurrencies are unlike regular currencies because their value and history of exchanges is visible on the blockchain rather than a series of banks and other financial institutions. However, they are digital assets rather than currencies because you can generally only exchange these assets online for goods, but not outside of it. Nevertheless, because of the blockchain method, cryptocurrencies make anonymous exchanges possible that are ideal for shady businesses on the dark web.
The most well-known cryptocurrency, Bitcoin, is also used 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.
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 in most countries, 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.
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, mostly criminals inhabit the dark web. If you do end up going there, always take precautions. A good VPN service and solid anti-malware and antivirus software are essential, but still leave you exposed. The 13 step plan is one of the safest ways to get onto the dark web. Ultimately, you access the dark web at your own peril. Stay curious, but stay safe too!