The Dark Web: What is it, and what can you find?

What is Dark Web

If we see the Internet as a vast ocean, the dark web would be the background. This is the “hidden” part that you cannot access using a normal browser like Google Chrome. Instead, you have to use Tor anonymous browser.

There are some myths about what you can find on the dark web, that it is all illegal web shops and shocking graphic content like child pornography. Fortunately, this is not the case. Yes, these things are there, but also everything from forums for investigative journalists to pages on manga and anime. 

However, it is true that there are real dangers on the dark web, such as hackers, malware, scammers, and more.

That’s why we recommend that you make sure you take some safety precautions. Fortunately, Tor Browser already offers some anonymity and protection. However, for more privacy and security, we also recommend using a VPN. In particular, we recommend NordVPN. 

Thanks to its strong encryption and its no-logs policy, it will greatly increase your security and privacy on the dark web.

Using a VPN over Tor has many advantages. Depending on your settings, you can prevent your ISP from detecting that you are using Tor, or protect yourself against Tor exit nodes trying to spy on you.

The dark web is a hidden part of the World Wide Web that cannot be accessed using browsers like Microsoft Edge, Mozilla Firefox, and Google Chrome. Dark web pages are also not indexed by search engines like Google. In other words, you need a special browser (like the Tor browser) and an idea of ​​what you want to look for when you visit the dark web. Most Internet users will not find themselves regularly on the dark web, if ever. This can be understood as some parts are not secure.

You may have heard some terrible stories about the dark web. It is usually described as the dangerous part of the internet, where all sorts of shady business takes place, from illegal drug sales to hiring hit men. Some of these things are true, but the dark web is about more than just criminal activity. It is also a safe place for journalists and informants to share their stories, for example. Even normal citizens of dictatorial countries can use it to communicate freely.

This article will tell you everything you need to know about the dark web. We will tell you the difference between the deep and the dark web, how it was created, what risks there are and how it can be accessed.

If you’re looking for a safe way to visit the dark web, we’ve put together a comprehensive step-by-step plan to navigate the dark web safely. Make sure you select all security measures before visiting the dark web. If you want to be familiar with all the different terms and words that have to do with the dark web, you can visit our Dark Web Dictionary.

Stay safe on the dark web!

Accessing the dark web is very easy, but you are also getting into big trouble for it. Therefore, it is important to always keep your online security and privacy in mind. We highly recommend using a VPN to encrypt and anonymize all internet traffic. Other than that, always make sure you have up-to-date antivirus running on your device. In this way, it is more difficult to intercept your data, monitor what you do online or infect your PC.

A VPN will protect you when you are surfing the surface or the deep web, but also when you want to surf the dark web. With this, it will be much more difficult for your Internet Service Provider (ISP), governments and hackers to discover what you have been doing while connected.

An excellent VPN for the dark web: NordVPN

A popular VPN service to use with 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 a number of additional security measures to choose from. 

This makes NordVPN a great provider to use when venturing out on the dark web. In addition, they offer good customer support and are easy to use. You can read all about this provider in our comprehensive NordVPN review.

Note: Technically, using Tor Browser (alongside a VPN for added security) is not the only way to visit the dark web. However, it is definitely the safest. Currently, the Tor project also offers a service that allows you to access pages on the dark web without having to download the Tor browser. This project is called Tor2web and can be used to browse dark web pages from your standard browser (such as Google Chrome). 

Even so, from the Tor project itself, it is indicated that it is not even close to the security of using the Tor browser to visit the dark web. Without Tor, it is much easier for criminals to discover your identity and install malware on your PC. So, we advise you NOT to use Tor2web to visit the dark web!

Access the dark web with a smartphone

Are you wondering if it is safe to access the dark web with your smartphone? It depends on what you are going to do on the dark web and what phone you use. Tor is compatible with Android, but the operating system is very vulnerable, and it is not recommended accessing the dark web with an Android device. Tor is not supported on iOS.

In general, smartphones are not the most appropriate when it comes to anonymity. Everything you do online can be tracked. With a smartphone, this is even easier thanks to the GPS tracking used by so many apps. Also, you run the risk of your phone being hacked and your personal data stolen.

Curious about the dark web? Well, it is better to use a computer for more security.

What is the dark web?

The dark web has many visitors, including pushers, computer geeks, scammers, journalists fighting censorship, and regular people who just want to communicate with others without the government looking over their shoulders. The latter frequently occurs in countries like China and Iran, where there is a lot of internet censorship.

To understand what exactly the dark web is, we need to differentiate between a few terms. It is often said that the Internet has three layers: the surface web, the deep web and the dark web. Especially, the terms deep web and dark web are frequently used incorrectly, which can cause a lot of confusion. Here are some 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, the deep web, and the dark web.

Each of these terms will be explained below.

dark web

The surface web

The surface web, along with the deep web, is the part of the Internet that most of us use every day. It is accessible through normal browsers like Chrome, Safari, Firefox, etc. This very article is part of it: you can access it from anywhere and at any time, as long as you have an Internet connection and a browser. 

Other websites, including online and business stores, are also part of the surface web. This is the part of the web that can be reached through search engines like Google.

If you visit a website as a regular visitor, you will not see each part of the website. You will only see the surface. When you browse Amazon without signing in, for example, you will come across countless products, but you will only be able to view the site as a customer, not as a seller or administrator. To see behind the scenes, you will need a username and password. Once you have it, you can get from the surface web to the deep web.

The deep web

The deep web is the part of the internet that contains very specific information. Most of us will not have access to this information, and it is not accessible through search engines either. In other words, a conventional Google search will not return pages from the deep web. 

Mostly, they are pages and databases that are only intended for a certain group of people within an organization. To gain access, you must know the exact web address (URL). In some cases, you also need a password.

The deep web is by far the largest part of the Internet, estimated to be between 90-95% of the entire World Wide Web. Some examples of pages on the deep web that may contain private data are companies, universities, libraries, hospitals, governments, international organizations, etc.

The dark web

Finally, there is that part of the Internet that we call the dark web. It is more difficult to reach than the surface or the deep web, as it is only accessible through special browsers such as the Tor browser. The dark web is the unregulated part of the Internet. No organization, company or government is in charge of it or is capable of applying rules. This is exactly why the dark web is commonly associated with illegal practices.

Some people refer to this part of the internet as the “deep web”, but this is not the correct term. It is true that the dark web is part of the deep web, but the dark web is even more elusive. As we have described before, a large part of the deep web is accessible through normal browsers, but this is not the case with the dark web. It is impossible to visit the dark web through a browser like Google Chrome or Edge.

The dark web works a little differently than the surface web. Even using Tor Browser, you will not be able to find any “dark” websites ending in .com or .org. Instead, URLs typically consist of a random mix of letters and numbers and end in .onion. The DuckDuckGo search engine address, for example, might be something like http://3g2upl4pq6kufc4m.onion. 

Also, the URLs of the websites on the dark web change regularly. This means that they can be considered as hidden webs, as they are not as easy to find as most surface web or deep web platforms. If you want to know more about a couple of popular dark websites, be sure to check out our Dark Web sites worth visiting article.

Donna Giustizia

In a word: yes. The use of the dark web and the Tor browser are legal in most countries. However, if you decide to act on the dark web in a way that is inconsistent with the law, that would be considered illegal. As such, we emphasize the importance of complying with the law of the country in which you are located.

However, it is often forgotten that the dark web and the Tor browser are mere tools to exercise your right to privacy and freedom of expression. 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

More than 130 countries that are part of the United Nations have laws concerning the protection of the privacy of their citizens. This is likely to be the case where you live, too.

Is it allowed to browse the dark web?

In short, browsing the dark web is not illegal in most countries. This means that you are allowed to browse the websites of the dark web. However, it could make you look suspicious according to the local police. Most of the things sold on the dark web are illegal, so buying those illegal items is obviously prohibited. 

Since these products are usually only found on the dark web, anyone browsing this part of the internet could buy them. This is why governments might try to monitor you if you visit the dark web.

Although the use of the dark web is legal in most countries, the illegal activities that happen regularly and the illegal content that can be found make the dark web a suspicious place. Therefore, it may not be the best part of the Internet to visit regularly if you are a normal, law-abiding citizen.

Why and how did the Dark Web originate?

The dark web was not created by criminals who wanted an anonymous way to communicate. It was actually developed by the United States government. But how did it happen?

Communication between spies

Agents from various “three-letter agencies,” such as the CIA, were dispatched to many remote locations. There was a truly global network of American spies collecting information and intelligence for the United States. During the 1990s, information became increasingly digitized and it was no longer necessary for these spies to transmit their reports through old media such as radios or letters. The Internet and new cryptographic techniques replaced these old means of communication.

Suddenly, all information could be sent over the Internet. Around 1995, the US Naval Research Laboratory started a program that would eventually become Tor (The Onion Router). With Tor, agencies had an encrypted communications line with their field agents.

Anonymity for all

anonymous

Around 1997, the project was handed over to the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which in turn handed it over to various civil rights groups. Now the question, of course, is, why would the government give this technique and network away to civil rights groups? There are some who believe that Tor was never really abandoned by the US government.

Another explanation is that they had to open the anonymous network because all US agents had to be able to use it from anywhere in the world at any time. That made the network vulnerable to infiltration, so others started using it.

Also, if only US intelligence agents used this network, then obviously any communications intercepted from this network would be highly valuable. Therefore, it would be better to open the network to many other users so that intelligence communications would be diluted in a sea of ​​non-government communications. In this way, everyone would remain anonymous, and US agents could use the network to transmit their reports.

Why don’t they just shut down the dark web?

While the Tor network was available to anyone with an Internet connection, more and more servers were being set up all over the world. Thus, the network became much more decentralized . With each new connection in a different country, the US jurisdiction over the Internet became smaller. The power of a network lies in the fact that it cannot be turned off from one location. If you disconnect the US side, the rest of the network does not cease to exist.

In addition to the inability of any state to completely shut down the network, the United States also benefits from having this network, even if illegal activities take place on it as well. 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 resist, filter, expose, etc., against authoritarian states that the United States is very critical of.

Whether it’s Venezuela or Iran, the US is glad people have a tool like Tor to make life harder for those regimes. Of course, this also applies to the US, as was made clear by the appearance of Wikileaks and Snowden’s allegations of wrongdoing.

A double edged sword

For the above reasons, the dark web can be beneficial and dangerous at the same time. Because it’s useful in so many ways, the US government doesn’t want to shut it down. Even if they did, they would have to try to shut it down entirely and get the compliance and cooperation of dozens of countries that have no interest in cooperating with the United States.

What national authorities can do is cooperate to shut down certain websites and hold their owners, administrators, users, etc. accountable. Often when a dark website is shut down, multiple agencies have worked together to make it happen. 

For example, if the US Department of Justice wanted to shut down a Dutch marijuana market, it would require the cooperation of the Dutch police, Europol, and possibly a number of other agencies and authorities. The following image shows the number of agencies involved in the seizure of a market.

Dark Market closed down

The removal of 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 this web down shows how difficult it can be to shut down parts of the darknet, let alone the entire darknet.

Accessing the Dark Web

If you want to visit the dark web, you should be aware that it can be dangerous if you don’t take proper precautions. To go to the dark web in the safest way possible, we have created a guide full of tips and tricks. 

Below you will find a reduced version of this guide with the essentials. However, it is good to remember that the following steps will keep you relatively safe but by no means completely anonymous.

  • Install a VPN (we suggest NordVPN) on your device and turn it on.
  • Make sure you have an updated antivirus on your device.
  • Download and install Tor Anonymous Browser.
  • Start Tor Browser.
  • Make sure the ability to run scripts in Tor Browser is disabled.
  • Optional: change the security settings in Tor.
  • Browse the dark web, for example, starting at the Hidden Wiki. The link is http://zqktlwi4fecvo6ri.onion/wiki/index.php/Main_Page

Finally, before entering the dark web, remember that it can be a very dangerous place. Take our warnings seriously and don’t let malware and hackers affect your device! If you want to make sure you have the best protection possible, you can follow our guide to the dark web.

What is Thor?

Tor (the onion router) is free, open-source software that works like a browser. Unlike browsers like Chrome, Firefox, and Edge, Tor aims to keep its users anonymous. In order for this to happen, Tor Browser funnels your internet activities through various IP addresses/hosts that represent the layers of an onion. Your searches travel through a network of nodes. 

On each node, some encryption is removed. In the end, your information reaches the website you wanted. This onion routing process aims to keep the user anonymous.

Tor nodes

The Tor browser is used to access the dark web. As mentioned, this is the easiest way to get to URLs with the .onion suffix. This suffix refers to the onion routing that Tor uses to ensure anonymous browsing: encryption comes in layers, like the layers of an onion, hence its name. 

Websites may decide to use an .onion domain because they don’t want the whole world to know they exist. This could be because they simply want to be exclusive or because they contain questionable or illegal content.

Tor can give you access to the entire 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 primarily used to anonymize internet browsing, but it is also the main route to the dark web. For even more details on Tor Browser, visit our Tor Browser page.

In short, it is necessary to use the Tor browser (or a similar anonymous browser) to access the dark web, and it also helps you to be more anonymous on the Internet. Your IP address, for example, remains hidden. Take a look at these 10 reasons to hide your IP address. Please note that Tor Browser is not foolproof. This is why it is always advisable to also have a VPN running.

Tor over VPN, or VPN over Tor?

You may not have realized it, but there is a difference if you connect to the Tor network while connected to a VPN or the other way around.

The additional advantage of installing a VPN before entering the Tor network is that your ISP or any other interested parties (government agencies, hackers, etc.) will not know that you have logged into the Tor network because your Internet traffic will already be encrypted. Sadly, the mere fact that you want to log into an anonymous network like Tor is enough to make you suspicious according to certain groups.

And while the Tor network is encrypted and anonymous, it won’t prevent your ISP or anyone else who snoops on your Internet traffic via your IP address from knowing that you’re logged into Tor. It will, of course, unless you connect to a VPN first.

It is also possible to get a VPN subscription through the Tor network. This means that you must first log in to Tor, then in Tor Browser you should go to the NordVPN website, for example, and sign up for a VPN. The additional advantage would be that your ISP would not know that you are interested in a VPN service.

In our experience, however, accessing the Tor network is generally considered much more suspicious due to its association with the dark web. This is why we always recommend getting a good VPN subscription first. If you are interested in learning more about the various VPN alternatives and which one is right for you, check out our reviews.

The Hidden Wiki

Navigating the dark web can be quite difficult. Getting started on a website like Hidden Wiki can help you find your way. 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. There are some categories on the Hidden Wiki that you’ll want to avoid. Always be careful what links you click, even on websites that appear legitimate.

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

Another good place to start is our article on sites worth visiting on the dark web.

The dark web: myths

There are many stories about the wacky services and websites that hide on the dark web. Hiring hitmen is only one of the available examples. Although we cannot be sure that some of this behaviour does not take place on the dark web, most of the rumours surrounding the dark web, such as online hitmen or redrooms, are pure fiction.

For example, a hitman-for-hire website called Besa Mafia actually existed, except that it never committed any murders. He was just stealing money from gullible dark web users who wanted to kill someone. However, many other questionable things, such as drugs and weapons, are freely available on the dark web.

Due to the existence of so many evil dark websites, the dark web has got an awful reputation. It is often believed that everything that happens on the dark web must be illegal. That is not 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 is very difficult to know exactly what is happening on the dark web. As we mentioned before, you need to know the specific URLs or have a good and reliable search engine to get to the right dark website. It’s pretty hard to stumble across the right web when web addresses are random combinations of digits and letters.

We cannot make definitive statements, as the dark web is constantly changing and for many it remains hidden. However, and in general, these are some things you can find on the dark web:

  • Black markets
  • Fraudulent or dangerous dark websites
  • Email services, forums and other forms of anonymous online communication
  • Botnets
  • Bitcoin and cryptocurrency websites

Black markets

black market drugs

The black market has flourished since the birth of the Internet. The dark web is home to many black markets, where all kinds of products can be bought and sold. The existence of such markets is illegal, although some public figures, scientists and academics have also highlighted some positive side effects.

Silk Road was one of the first famous black markets on the dark web. Users openly discussed drug use and uploaded photos of their products. The website eventually earned the nickname “The eBay of Vice.” 

After several years of investigation, the US authorities managed to track down the administrator (Ross Ulbricht), who used the pseudonym “Dread Pirate Roberts” on the web. He was arrested in San Francisco in October 2013 and the website was closed.

However, after Ulbricht’s arrest, many imitating websites appeared. There are now more black market websites than ever available on the dark web. Silk Road was the first of its kind, now there are many ones vying to be next.

Fraudulent or dangerous websites

dangerous websites

The dark web is also teeming with fake and dangerous websites. That is why it is important to always be careful and use both a VPN and a good antivirus. Never click on a link on the dark web if you don’t know where it will take you. Your computer could be hacked or infected with malware before you know what’s going on.

Furthermore, the dark web contains many dark websites that would not be tolerated on the surface web due to their content. Unfortunately, you can find things like animal abuse or child pornography. Therefore, it may be sensible to stay away from this part of the Internet.

Email services, forums and other forms of anonymous communication

The dark web is also used for anonymous communications. Whistleblowers and journalists can use these routes to filter or find sensitive information. Those who want to denounce a company or government for an illegal act can use the dark web to try to remain anonymous. Journalists can use it to contact 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 for Internet freedom and transparency, not everyone has those same motivations. Criminals and terrorists will also use anonymous communication on the dark web to try to stay out of the reach of law enforcement.

On the dark web, you can find hacker forums trading stolen data. This usually involves passport data, credit card numbers and (digital) identities. This information is obtained by cybercriminals hacking systems. This illegally obtained information is then sold on the dark web.

Botnets

A botnet is a network of infected devices that can be operated by the hacker who controls them. Devices on the network are often infected without their owners’ knowledge. The hacker in charge of the botnet can use the devices to spread viruses, phishing to obtain private information or facilitate DDoS attacks. 

The botnet is less likely to be discovered, shut down, or shut down if it operates on the dark web. On the dark web, some hackers sell the botnets they have created. In exchange for a large amount of money, you can gain control of a large network of infected devices.

Bitcoin and cryptocurrency websites

bitcoin

If you visit the dark web, you will see that almost everything is paid for with cryptocurrencies, such as Bitcoin. These cryptocurrencies are online currencies that can be used all over the world. 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 different from regular currencies because their value and trading history is visible on the blockchain rather than through a series of banks and other financial institutions. 

However, they are digital assets rather than currencies because you can usually only exchange these assets for goods online, not offline. Due to the blockchain method, cryptocurrencies make anonymous exchanges possible, which are ideal for shady business on the dark web.

The most well-known cryptocurrency, Bitcoin, is also used outside the dark web. However, recent incidents show that the coin might not be as anonymous as some might have hoped. Other types of cryptocurrencies are also very popular. Some new cryptocurrencies are constantly trying to improve the protection of the anonymity of the people who use them.

Conclusions

We want to emphasize our advice that you DO NOT use the dark web without first taking the proper security measures. Curiosity is understandable, but it’s not worth exposing yourself to the dangers of this unregulated part of the web. After all, there is criminal activity on the dark web.

If you end up visiting the dark web, always take precautions. A good VPN service and strong anti-malware are essential, but they still leave you exposed to many threats. There are many more steps you need to take to be truly safe on the dark web. This step-by-step plan explains how you can do it. Finally, access the dark web at your own risk. Stay curious, but also stay safe!

The Dark Web: Frequently Asked Questions

Do you need a quick answer to your question? Here are some frequently asked questions and answers about the Dark Web.

Dark Web is a collective term for webs that can only be accessed using the Tor browser. These websites cannot be accessed through the ‘surface web’. In the media, the Dark Web is often portrayed as dangerous, but there are also legitimate Dark Websites dealing with legal issues.

The surface web is all the websites that can be visited through browsers such as Google Chrome, Microsoft Edge and Mozilla Firefox. Most people know the surface web as the Internet.

The Deep Web are websites that can only be visited using a password or other means of authentication. Think about your email inbox and Facebook page, but also your work cloud files. In some countries, the term ‘Deep Web’ is used to refer to the ‘Dark Web’.

To access the Dark Web, you must 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 browser that allows you to visit dark web sites.

On the Dark Web you can find many different types of websites. From book review websites and normal websites that have an .onion variant (such as news websites) to drug market websites and pornographic websites. Most dark websites can be put into one (or multiple) of the following categories:

  • Illegal markets for the sale of drugs, weapons, etc.
  • Websites for informants to reveal their information.
  • Technology websites.
  • Pornographic websites.
  • News websites.
  • Forums and websites where all kinds of topics, legal and illegal, are discussed.

Yes, the Dark Web is legal. However, some websites or the content of websites on the Dark Web may be illegal.

The dark web can only be visited with special web browsers like 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 websites.