What is the Dark Web: Things You Need To Know Before Accessing The Dark Web
Table of Contents
- By David Lukic
- Aug 05, 2020
The dark web, also known as the “darknet”, is a portion of the internet that lies outside the boundaries of traditional search engines. You won’t find any links to sites or pages for dark web content on Google. The dark web is a small portion of the deep web which is not indexed by search engines or accessible by traditional means.
What is On the Dark Web?
The dark web is a breeding ground for illegal activity. Some of the things you will find there are online marketplaces to buy stolen financial and private data (for identity theft), drugs, pornography, and other highly illegal products and services. Payment is made through trades or cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin to hide the trail. Bitcoin has actually helped the dark web experience an enormous growth spurt.
Other things you can expect to find on the dark web are guns, counterfeit money, credit card numbers, bank account details, stolen credentials, phishing and ransomware kits (to wage campaigns and steal from people), prepaid debit cards, hacked Netflix accounts, a “lifetime” Netflix account that you can purchase for $6.
You can also buy services from all types of cybercriminals. Even if someone hasn’t been the victim of a data breach, a hacker can still break into their account or private information. The sky really is the limit on the dark web.
Along with the illegal stuff, there are also many legitimate networks such as chess clubs, social networks, hard-to-find books, and collectibles, as well as chat rooms for innocent purposes. Additionally, you will find a few whistleblower sites and political news forums for people who live in countries where “free speech” is not allowed.
The websites on the dark web may look very similar to regular sites. Some marketplaces even use ratings, reviews, and shopping carts. However, when you are dabbling in illegal goods, you don’t really know who you are dealing with. You take your chances with any transaction conducted on the dark web.
What is the Dark Web Used for?
The dark web was created to bring buyers and sellers together who require anonymity when dealing with each other. This anonymity is not only used for nefarious activities but also for journalists who want to interview sources who need to remain anonymous or live in countries where serious sanctions would prevent them from revealing information. Whereas the World Wide Web is monitored and considered non-private, the dark web is completely secure. The dark web uses tight encryption technology to keep everyone anonymous and everything private.
Due to its secretive nature, the dark web has attracted hackers, cybercriminals, drug lords, child pornographers, and even hitmen selling their services online. Many websites are owned by scammers and only use them for a short time before pulling the plug and opening up shop elsewhere.
Researchers estimate that at least $180 million of business was conducted on the dark web in 2015, and that was five years ago! Undoubtedly, that number is substantially higher now.
Websites on the dark web often require a specific proxy server, or you cannot access them. Additionally, the URLs are scrambled, so you can’t easily remember them or track them down. This is to thwart law enforcement who is always trying to get a foothold in the door to regulate the dark web. However, according to cybersecurity experts CSO, law enforcement is getting better at monitoring and enforcing the law on the dark web. In 2017, they shut down the largest marketplace for illegal contraband called AlphaBay.
Government law enforcement officials have dedicated hackers and task forces that infiltrate the dark web to find and apprehend criminals doing business there.
How the Dark Web Works
Most people have heard references to the “dark web” but don’t really know what it is or how it works. At times, especially after a significant data breach, information is sold on the dark web. Cybersecurity researchers have run tests that prove about 57% of the content and websites on the dark web are selling illicit goods and services. That figure was calculated in 2015; by now, it is estimated to be much higher.
The dark web is actually made up of many small darknets networks. We’ll go over the most widely utilized networks below.
The Onion Router Project (Tor)
Tor isn’t the best dark web network, but it is the most well-known. It anonymizes user personally identifiable information and makes it extremely difficult for anyone to trace web traffic back to an individual. Sites hosted through this network sport a |dot|onion web address distinct to Tor.
It achieves a higher level of security than traditional browsing by funneling online data through a network of routers called nodes. Tor uses an encryption method based around “onion routing,” which is where it derives its name.
Onion routing covers messages in layers of encryptions which are peeled away as it travels from node to node. The encrypted connection works 2-ways and hides the attached IP address of both site owners and visitors. This makes TOR popular among people wanting a safer online experience.
However, Tor’s anonymity is also ideal for creating and accessing sites on the dark web. The network is predominantly used for selling stolen identification and malware for cyber scams. Tor has the advantage of being an open-source network and is the most user-friendly option available which explains its wide use.
Freenet also ensures the privacy of its users, except it uses various machines as nodes instead of routers like Tor. The software's original aim was to promote anonymity and fight censorship. However, it hosts an extensive network of dark sites and is circulating a large amount of underage pornography.
Freenet allows users to create a peer-to-peer platform with free storage space collectively. This setup enables the software to receive and send data requests for file sharing from multiple sources. Since the data is always segmented, it's nearly impossible to track where any of it's coming from or going.
Users have multiple security options, including low, high, and custom. Low-security options are advised for anyone using Freenet for innocent reasons, while the higher-tier options are generally used for darknet purposes.
The Invisible Internet Project (I2P)
Like Freenet, I2P is a peer-to-peer program that prevents censorship or unwanted monitoring. It’s held as the more secure option of the two, with over 50,000 machines scattering user activity across the globe.
Browser data is encrypted on the sending and receiving ends using cryptographic identifiers. Additionally, it uses a different route through the nodes for incoming and outgoing data. So, even the host and the visitor can’t trace the information back to their counterpart.
The safest part of the peer-to-peer approach is its resistance to hackers or intercepting efforts. Breaking into a single device accomplishes nothing, as that only gets a portion of an interaction. Unsurprisingly, I2P is a popular dark web source for setting up deals.
While Tor is famous, it has a lot of problems. Its most significant issue is its lack of bandwidth which slows the program down to infuriating speeds. Many people can't cope with a slow browser in an era where immediate answers are the norm.
The AI Laboratory at MIT created Riffle in response. Riffle uses only a tenth of the time as other anonymity networks to send large files. It also shores up Tor's weaknesses by adding an extra layer of security to the onion routing method.
One of Tor's most significant failings is its sole reliance on the symmetric-key algorithm, which creates a private link between users by sending messages encrypted with the same key. This makes it susceptible to "honey potting," a ploy that authorities use to approach users.
It also struggles to anonymously send out mass messages as you would on Twitter since these types of messages would send the same encryption key to all recipients.
Riffle employs a series of servers the developers call the mixnet to combat these problems. Each server shuffles the order it gets messages before sending them to the next.
For example, if server A receives messages in the order 1, 2, 3, then it would send those messages to server B in a random order such as 2, 1, 3. This keeps anyone monitoring a single message from accurately tracing it between servers.
The mixnet slowly removes encryption layers as messages pass from server to server. It isn't until the endpoint that it's shown in plain text again.
Where Did the Dark Web Start and Who Created It?
The dark web traces its origins to an illegal market known as Silk Road. Its name came from the trade routes spanning Asia, Africa, and Europe that traders used for over 1,500 years. This marketplace proved the value of anonymity networks in criminal activity and was the template that darknets follow today.
This section of Tor specialized in drug trafficking, among other things, and operated from February 2011 to October 2013. The FBI arrested the founder Ross Ulbricht, otherwise known as the “Dread Pirate Roberts,” and sentenced him with two life sentences without a chance of parole.
Ulbricht’s heavy verdict didn’t prevent new versions of the Silk Road from cropping up. Two of the original market’s moderators put Silk Road Version 2.0 online only a month after the arrest.
The Silk Road existed exclusively on Tor and completed all transactions using cryptocurrency rather than the escrow methods used in today’s black markets. This was an early measure to prevent tracing anyone through direct money transfers.
The Dark Web vs. The Deep Web
The dark web encompasses all online content that can’t be found (unindexed) by search engines like Google, Bing, or DuckDuckGo. These sites often facilitate illegal activity and use several anonymity programs designed to fully secure the anonymity of site owners and users.
Unlike the dark web, the deep web doesn’t always have negative overtones. It’s an umbrella term for online content with partially or entirely blocked information. This can be due to information being: classified, locked behind paywalls, in private databases, or containing illegal content.
Each search sends out bots to crawl millions of web pages and find the most relevant information. However, they only scratch the surface. Some experts report that bots crawl less than 1 percent of online content.
For example, privacy laws prevent bots from indexing pages, including banking statements, health records, or chat messages. Many of us don’t categorize these pages as “content,” but they aren’t too different from any other page.
Most of the information on the deep web isn’t inherently illegal. Although, accessing that information without permission is where the grey area typically begins.
Is the Dark Web Legal?
The dark web can be viewed as an international effort. Many networks use peer-to-peer networks, which requires cooperation from users all around the globe. Policies differ between countries, but accessing the dark web is legal in most.
Notable exceptions are China, which has banned the use of all anonymous browsing. However, Chinese-language dark sites persist and constantly reopen after being shut down.
In the west, networks hosting illegal websites operate under the guise of combatting censorship or restricted freedoms. It’s just an unfortunate side-effect that the dark web has made these networks their home.
So, using programs like Tor and Riffle for anonymous browsing isn’t illegal. But using them to conduct criminal business certainly is.
Searching the Dark Web
Searching the dark web can prove to be difficult. Dark web search engines are rare and cannot be trusted. Because the content is continuously changing and moving, your results will be erratic and most likely result in a lot of 404 errors.
When buying or selling on the dark web, every transaction requires encryption, which means a PGP key. Some vendors use an escrow service so that the funds are held until the goods are delivered but again, no guarantees there, especially when dealing across country lines.
One site on the dark web Deep.Dot.Web is a news site and reports stories of buyers and sellers who have been arrested for transactions dealt through the dark web.
If you want to explore the dark web, do so at your own risk. Take some time to learn the landscape first so you don’t head into a dark alley that you can’t easily escape.