Think of the internet as a vast ocean. The websites we access on a daily basis (such as Google and Facebook) make up the surface. The dark web, on the other hand, is pretty much at the bottom. This is the “hidden” part of the internet that you can’t access using a regular browser such as Google Chrome.
There’s a myth that all you’ll find on the dark web are illegal markets and shocking graphic content. This is not the case. While those things are on there, the dark web is also a safe haven for journalists, whistleblowers, and people that want to avoid censorship.
If you want to visit the dark web, we recommend taking some safety precautions, namely: installing a VPN and using the Tor browser. For extra privacy and safety, we recommend NordVPN for its strong encryption and no-logging policy.
The dark web is a hidden part of the world wide web that can only be accessed using a special browser known as Tor. Dark web pages don’t appear when you look for them in a search engine, so you need to know the exact address of the website you want to visit.
This part of the internet is usually described as “dangerous.” The widely-known stereotype is that the dark web is where all sorts of shady things happen, from dealing illegal drugs to hiring hitmen. While there are definitely dangers lurking in the dark web, it’s also home to more than just illegal marketplaces.
The dark web can be a safe place for journalists and whistleblowers to communicate freely. Citizens from countries with strict internet regulations can also use the dark web to talk openly.
If you’re looking for a safe way to visit the dark web, we’ve prepared a comprehensive step-by-step plan to safely browse the dark web. For getting acquainted with all the different terms that have to do with the dark web, you can visit our Dark Web Dictionary.
Video Explainer: What is the Dark Web?
Our short animation discusses what exactly is the dark web — and what you can use it for. The article continues below the video.
Stay Safe on the Dark Web
Accessing the dark web is very easy, but so is getting into trouble because of it.
Additionally, 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.
For surfing the dark web, we recommend NordVPN. This service offers strong encryption and an array of extra safety measures to choose from, such as “Onion Over VPN” servers. These servers offer extra protection against DDoS attacks. 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 itself indicates 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
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 at all.
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?
To understand what the dark web is, we need to understand its terminology. The internet is often described as consisting of three parts: the surface web, the deep web, and the dark web.
The terms “deep web” and “dark web” get misused regularly, which can cause a lot of confusion. As we talk about the dark web, here are a few points 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, the deep web, and the dark web.
Here’s an infographic to differentiate between the terms.
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 such as Google Chrome, Safari, or 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 and a browser.
Other websites, including those of online stores and businesses, are also part of the “regular web.” However, when you open a website as a visitor, you don’t get to see every part of that website. You’ll only see the surface.
When you surf Amazon without logging in, for example, you’ll see their product listings. 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 onto the deep web.
The deep web
The term “deep web” refers to the part of the internet that’s behind closed doors. Most of the deep web consists of pages and databases that are only meant for a certain group of people within an organization.
Your work database might be on this part of the web. In order to get access, you’ll need to know the exact web address (otherwise known as a URL). In some cases, you’ll need a password, as well.
Most of us won’t have access to this URL and the required login credentials — and this information can’t be found on search engines, either. In other words: a conventional Google search won’t show you deep web content or pages.
The deep web is by far the biggest part of the internet, estimated to make up between 90 and 95% of the complete world wide web. Examples of pages on the deep web are: the private data and pages of companies, universities, libraries, hospitals, governments, international organizations, and so on.
The dark web
The dark web is the part of the deep web that’s only accessible through a special browser: the Tor browser.
Also called the “darknet,” this collection of sites refers to the unregulated part of the internet. No organization, business, or government is in charge of the dark web or is able to enforce 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 it’s a different section of the internet altogether.
As mentioned, the deep web is accessible through regular browsers — as long as you have the exact URL. This isn’t the case for the dark web. It’s impossible to reach the dark web through a regular browser such as Google Chrome or Edge.
The dark web functions differently from the regular web. Even when using Tor, dark web websites don’t end in .com or .org. Instead, URLs usually consist of a random mix of letters and numbers. They also end in .onion.
The address of search engine DuckDuckGo, for example, might be something like http://3g2upl4pq6kufc4m.onion.
Moreover, the URLs of dark web sites change regularly, so they aren’t as easy to find as most platforms on other parts of the internet.
Surface web vs. Deep web vs. Dark web
To summarize, here are some key differences between the surface web, the deep web, and the dark web:
|Features||Surface Web||Deep Web||Dark Web|
|Accessibility||Freely accessible||Requires login credentials and a website’s exact URL||Requires a special browser and a website’s exact URL|
|Browser-Friendliness||Can be visited using any browser||Can be visited using any browser||Can only be visited using a special browser|
|Search Engine-Friendliness||Can be found on a search engine (e.g. Google, Yahoo, Bing)||Can’t usually be found on a search engines||Can’t be found on search engines at all|
|Examples||Google, Facebook, Amazon, VPNOverview||Confidential databases and employee pages of corporations, universities, and organizations||Black markets, Tor-exclusive email services|
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 laws 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’ privacy. Chances are, this will be the case where you live, as well.
History of the Dark Web: Why and How was the Dark Web Created?
The dark web wasn’t created by cybercriminals. It was actually developed by the United States government. Why was it developed and how did it become the hub for anonymity it is today? Let’s find out.
For most of history, there was a global network of American spies who collected information and intelligence for the U.S. 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 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 (although there are some people who believe that Tor was never really given up by the U.S. government).
Of course, the question is: why would the government hand this network over to civilian advocacy groups?
One of the widely known explanations is that the US government had to open up the anonymous network so that US agents could use it from anywhere in the world at any time. The downside is that made the network vulnerable to infiltration.
Another explanation is that, if U.S. intelligence agents would be using this network exclusively, then obviously, any communication on this network would be directly linked to the U.S. government. Therefore, it was better to open the network up to many other people, so that intelligence communications can be drowned out by the presence of non-government communications.
Why don’t they shut down the dark web?
As 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, U.S. jurisdiction over the internet became smaller.
The power of the Tor network resides in the fact that it cannot be shut down from any one location. Even if you pull the plug on American servers, the rest of the network doesn’t cease to exist.
The U.S. benefits from having this network around — even if it also hosts criminal activity. To this day, it’s still being used as a channel for covert communications by intelligence agencies.
The dark web is also one of the best tools political activists can use to leak information against authoritarian states that the U.S. is very critical of. Of course, this also applies to the U.S., as was made clear by the emergence of WikiLeaks and the whistleblowing activities of Edward Snowden.
A double-edged sword
The Tor network can be both beneficial and dangerous at the same time. Because it is helpful in multiple ways, the U.S. government does not want to shut it down. Even if they did, they would have a hard time trying to shut it down in its entirety and would need the compliance and cooperation of dozens of countries all over the world.
What national authorities do instead is work together to close down specific sites involved in illegal activity. Often, when a dark 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 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 one such black 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.
How to Access 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?
The Onion Router (Tor) is a free, open-source web browser that aims to keep its users anonymous. In order to accomplish this, the Tor browser channels your internet activities through several IP addresses or hosts.
Your activity travels 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.
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.
Tor can give you access to the whole web, regardless of whether the websites are regulated or not. In short, using Tor is necessary to access the dark web — and also helps to make you more anonymous on the internet.
Note, however, that Tor is not foolproof. This is why it is always recommended to also have a VPN running.
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 websites, 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 You Can Find 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 websites. 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
As mentioned, to access a specific dark website, you need to know the exact URL of that page. And it’s not like these URLs are easy to remember either: they’re strings of random numbers, letters, and special characters.
Fortunately, there are dedicated pages that can help you find what you’re looking for. These pages usually even categorize their “onion links,” making it easier for you to browse through their list of links. Here are two of these pages, together with their onion links:
- The Hidden Wiki: http://zqktlwiuavvvqqt4ybvgvi7tyo4hjl5xgfuvpdf6otjiycgwqbym2qad.onion/wiki/index.php/Main_Page
- Daniel: http://danielas3rtn54uwmofdo3x2bsdifr47huasnmbgqzfrec5ubupvtpid.onion/
Black markets have flourished since the birth of the internet. The dark web is home to many black marketplaces, where all sorts of goods can be sold and bought, from cheap Netflix accounts to credit card numbers, weapons, and drugs.
Note that the existence of such markets is illegal.
Anonymity is highly valued in these circles, and payment methods are often limited to cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, Litecoin, and Monero as they can help ensure that buyers are never identified.
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 on the dark web almost always require you to use Tor and only allow you to send emails to others who are also using Tor. Some secure email services available on the dark web are:
- Mail2Tor: http://mail2torjgmxgexntbrmhvgluavhj7ouul5yar6ylbvjkxwqf6ixkwyd.onion/
- ProtonMail: http://protonmailrmez3lotccipshtkleegetolb73fuirgj7r4o4vfu7ozyd.onion/
- secMail.pro: http://secmail63sex4dfw6h2nsrbmfz2z6alwxe4e3adtkpd4pcvkhht4jdad.onion/
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.
Exploring the Dark Web
We want to stress that we advise you NOT to use the dark web without first having taken the proper safety measures. In most cases, it’s not worth exposing yourself to the dangers of this unregulated part of the web.
If you do end up visiting the dark web, always take precautions. This step-by-step plan will explain exactly how you could do that. Ultimately, you access the dark web at great risk to yourself. 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 Google Chrome, Firefox, or other popular browsers.
In the media, the dark web is often portrayed as a dangerous place, but there are also legitimate websites on the dark web that don’t necessarily pose any danger. Learn more about what you can find on the dark web here.
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. Facebook, Amazon, Google, Netflix, and this very article are all part of the surface web.
The deep web includes 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 corporate databases, student portals, and e-commerce seller platforms. 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. They’re a complex string of letters and numbers, unlike your average surface web URLs.
For example, this is the .onion address for The Hidden Wiki:
Tor stands for ‘The Onion Router” and is a special browser that allows you to visit dark websites. Besides being the gateway to the dark web, Tor also offers enhanced privacy for its users.
On the dark web, you can find many different kinds of websites, from 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 in most countries. However, it is possible that some websites or that some content on dark web websites is illegal.
Moreover, repressive governments restrict access to the dark web and to Tor in an attempt to limit free access to information. If you want to find out more, read our articles on censorship and our discussion of the history of the dark web.
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. You cannot visit these dark web websites with browsers like Google Chrome, Microsoft Edge, and Mozilla Firefox.