The dark web refers to a part of the internet that is not indexed by search engines and can only be accessed using a specialized browser. As such, it is different from the surface web we use daily that does not require a special browser and can be found using search engines.
It’s also different from the deep web, which refers to all the content on the internet that is behind paywalls, password-protected webpages, or other authorization measures. While the deep web can be accessed using a normal browser, you need to have the specific link and password.
To enter safely into the dark web, you need to use the Tor network which encrypts your browsing activity to protect your anonymity and privacy online. However, the resulting anonymity and secrecy are also used by cybercriminals to sell illegal products and services. Indeed, you’ll find a range of illegal items and services on the dark web, including:
- Drugs and contraband
- Illegal porn
- Malware as a service
But, the dark web is not all bad. It’s also used by activists, journalists, and other professionals to securely share sensitive information. Moreover, it hosts several useful websites and tools, such as anonymous email and file-sharing services. At the same time, the dark web remains quite dangerous and you must take necessary precautions to protect yourself, like:
- Use a VPN, such as NordVPN when browsing the dark web.
- Install an antivirus scanner to detect any malicious files you accidentally download from the dark web.
- Use the Tor browser as it offers the highest security while visiting the dark web.
With the introduction of Freenet, the first version of the modern dark web emerged. Freenet was a decentralized network that allowed for the exchange of encrypted data, giving users more anonymity. A few years later, the Tor browser was developed to provide users with a secure way to access the dark web.
The common misconception about the dark web is that it is a place 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 used positively by journalists, whistleblowers, and many others.
In this article, we take a deep dive into the secrets of the dark web, explore different ways to access it, and discuss whether it is legal to use it. So, let’s get right to it.
What Is the Dark Web?
The dark web is a part of the internet where users can access websites without their identities being revealed and with their privacy protected by encryption offered by specialized web browsers like Tor.
Since there are many levels of encryption, users can conduct various activities on the dark web that can be legal or illegal. The dark web, for instance, can be used to offer illegal goods and services or to get around government censorship in nations with strict internet regulations.
Here’s a video we put together as a visual explainer:
Surface Web vs. Deep Web vs. Dark Web
To understand what the dark web is a bit better, we need to first take a closer look at the different layers of the web. The internet is often described as consisting of three parts: the surface web, the deep web, and the dark web.
However, all these different parts of the world wide web have distinct features that set them apart from each other. The table below summarizes some of the characteristics and 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 various search engines (e.g., Google, Yahoo, Bing)||Can’t usually be found on search engines||Can’t be found on search engines|
|Examples||Facebook, Amazon, VPNOverview||Confidential databases and employee pages of corporations, universities, and organizations||Black markets, Tor-exclusive email services|
The surface web
The surface 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. There’s no need for you to log in or use a password to access the content since it’s indexed by search engines.
The deep web
The term “deep web” refers to the part of the internet that’s behind closed doors, such as paywalls. In order to get access, you’ll need to know the exact web address (otherwise known as a URL), as search engines do not index deep web websites. In some cases, you’ll need a password, as well.
Most of the deep web consists of pages and databases that are only meant for a certain group of people within an organization. The deep web is by far the biggest part of the internet, estimated to make up between 90-95% of the complete world wide web.
The dark web
The dark web is part of the deep web, and it’s only accessible through a special browser: the Tor browser. This browser encrypts your activity and routes it through a special network that allows access to dark web websites (more on this later).
Broadly, the dark web 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.
Like the deep web, dark web websites are also not searchable on Google. They can only be accessed if you have the specific URL. These URLs are very different from surface and deep web URLs and often combine random letters and numbers. For example, the dark web address of the search engine DuckDuckGo might be something like: https://duckduckgogg42xjoc72x3sjasowoarfbgcmvfimaftt6twagswzczad.onion
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.
How to Access the Dark Web
The dark web or hidden web can only be accessed through a special dark web browser. The Onion Router, known as Tor, is the most popular dark web browser. We will briefly discuss what Tor is and how it works before diving into a step-by-step guide on accessing the dark web.
What is the Tor network and how does it work?
The Tor network is a free, open-source web browser that aims to keep its users anonymous. In order to accomplish this, your activity is encrypted and sent through a network of nodes operated by volunteers around the globe. At every node, part of the encryption is peeled off.
Eventually, your information ends up at the website of your choice. However, the website cannot trace this activity back to your IP address. This process of “onion routing” aims to keep the user anonymous. Hence, Tor can be used to access the dark web or to access surface and deep web websites anonymously.
How to access the dark web safely on a PC
Accessing the dark web is easy. However, we must point out that there are dangers when entering the dark web realm. Although the dark web itself is legal, many of the activities on the dark web are illegal. You may accidentally end up on a website that sells illegal drugs or a porn website that displays illegal content, so it’s vital to take all measures to protect yourself before getting on the dark web.
But, if you’re in a hurry, follow the steps below to access the dark web safely from a PC.
Install the Tor browser for Windows
If you are using a PC, this is how you can install the Tor browser for Windows:
- Go to the Tor Project website and click on the button that says “Download Tor browser.”
- You will be forwarded to the download page. Select the “Download for Windows” icon.
- Once the file is downloaded, open it.
- Choose the folder where you like Tor to be installed and click “Install.”
- You’ll have the choice for Tor to start automatically, or you can opt to open it on your own when you want to use it.
The process for installing Tor on a Mac is very similar.
Enhance Your Protection on the Dark Web
Even though the Tor browser will offer you a good level of protection on the dark web there are additional measures you can take to enhance your privacy. We delve into some of these measures below.
Download and install a reliable VPN provider
This is an optional step, but we highly recommend it as a VPN adds an additional layer of encryption to your connection and prevents potential leakages on the Tor network. NordVPN is recommended for dark web browsing as it offers specialized Onion over VPN services and has a strong track record on user safety.
- Fast and large worldwide network of VPN servers
- Perfect for privacy and streaming
- Trusted by many, with over 14 million users
These are the steps to download and install NordVPN:
- After you have purchased your subscription package, go to NordVPN’s website and click “Login.”
- You will be redirected to another page where you have to select “Log in With Nord Account.”
- Fill in your account information and click “Continue” to go to the dashboard.
- On the left side of the dashboard, click on “Downloads.”
- Click on “Download the NordVPN app.”
- Download the “.exe file.”
- Open the installation file and select “Install.”
- Click on the NordVPN icon on your desktop and log in.
- Connect to a server in a different country. Connecting to a server too far away from you may result in slower loading times, so choose a server from a country that’s close to where you are.
You can now use the Tor browser to access the websites you want and have the added protection of a VPN.
You can also use other VPNs for the dark web. It all depends on the specifications you want your VPN to have, but ensure you look at the different features of a VPN provider thoroughly to find the one that will keep you safe.
Accessing the dark web from a mobile device
We generally do not recommend using a mobile device like an iPhone or Android to access the dark web for the following reasons:
- Smartphones are easier to trace: Modern smartphones come with a number of sensors designed to improve functionality. Accessing Tor from your mobile device can increase the likelihood of it being hacked and used for tracking and surveillance.
- There is no official Tor browser for iOS: Tor has not launched an official app for iOS yet. While alternatives are available, they are not as reliable as the official Tor app and can be vulnerable to security risks.
- Fake dark web browser apps can be found in app stores: The App Store and Play Store are both littered with dark web browser apps. However, several of these apps appear to be fake and unreliable. It is unclear if they encrypt your connection and connect you to the dark web as desired.
Additional tips for staying safe on the dark web
Using a VPN with the Tor browser should provide you with a reasonable level of security. However, the dark web can be dangerous, and taking a few extra security precautions is recommended. Here are some quick tips on keeping safe while browsing the dark web:
- Install an antivirus scanner: An antivirus scanner will constantly scan your device for external threats.
- Do not reveal personal information on the dark web: Revealing personal information on the dark web leaves you vulnerable to being scammed or hacked.
- Avoid clicking on suspicious links or downloading files from the dark web: Users shouldn’t click on links or download files they’re unfamiliar with as this could lead them to an illegal website that contains a virus or worm.
What You Can Find on the Dark Web
The dark web is constantly changing and remains largely hidden. Below, we list some of the websites, tools, products, and services that you can find on the dark web. We urge you to exercise utmost caution when exploring any of the above as they are potentially risky.
The URLs listed below will only open in Tor. We recommend opening them only with an active connection to a VPN server.
Dark web tools and sites
The dark web is home to different kinds of sites and tools. Some of these are similar to one’s on the surface web, while others differ almost entirely. Broadly, dark web websites and tools can be classified as:
Dark web link directories
To access a specific dark website, you need to know the exact URL of that page, which can be quite difficult to remember. Fortunately, there are dedicated pages that can help you find what you’re looking for. These pages even categorize their “onion links,” making it easier for you to browse through their list of links.
Here are two such pages:
- The Hidden Wiki: http://zqktlwiuavvvqqt4ybvgvi7tyo4hjl5xgfuvpdf6otjiycgwqbym2qad.onion/wiki/index.php/Main_Page
- Daniel: http://danielas3rtn54uwmofdo3x2bsdifr47huasnmbgqzfrec5ubupvtpid.onion/
Dark web websites for mainstream sites
News websites like the BBC, email services like ProtonMail, and torrent sites like The Pirate Bay all have onion websites. These dark web websites are usually for people who can’t access the surface web version of the site, often because of strict internet regulations in their countries.
Here are examples of dark web versions of popular sites:
- The New York Times: https://ej3kv4ebuugcmuwxctx5ic7zxh73rnxt42soi3tdneu2c2em55thufqd.onion/
- BBC: http://bbcnewsd73hkzno2ini43t4gblxvycyac5aw4gnv7t2rccijh7745uqd.onion/
Dark web email services
Email services on the dark web provide a way to send completely anonymous mail, even though they usually require the sender and recipient to be on the Tor network. Some secure email services available on the dark web are:
- Mail2Tor: http://mail2torjgmxgexntbrmhvgluavhj7ouul5yar6ylbvjkxwqf6ixkwyd.onion/
- ProtonMail: http://protonmailrmez3lotccipshtkleegetolb73fuirgj7r4o4vfu7ozyd.onion/
File uploads and transfers
Secure file uploads and transfers are widespread on the dark web, as the onion network provides several layers of encryption on both your files and connection. Journalists and informants usually use dark web file transfer services to share files with sensitive information.
Services under this category include:
- SecureDrop: http://sdolvtfhatvsysc6l34d65ymdwxcujausv7k5jk4cy5ttzhjoi6fzvyd.onion/
- BlackCloud: http://bcloudwenjxgcxjh6uheyt72a5isimzgg4kv5u74jb2s22y3hzpwh6id.onion/
Dark web forums and chat boards
There are several message boards and chatrooms on the dark web, often dedicated to topics that aren’t safe to discuss in other parts of the internet. We advise against visiting these websites, as people may be discussing dangerous, illegal, and unethical activities or topics.
Dark web whistleblowing websites
Whistleblowers, journalists, and other individuals reporting on companies or governments use the dark web to find and communicate sensitive information. Both the WikiLeaks network and whistleblowers like Edward Snowden have used the dark web in the past to spread their message.
What is for sale on the dark web?
You can find several items or services for sale on the dark web, including illegal or banned substances that cannot be bought on legitimate websites. Neither can they be obtained through legal channels in the physical world.
Dark web products
Some of the most commonly traded products on the dark web include:
- Drugs and contraband: The most common items sold on the dark web include drugs, such as marijuana, cocaine, and crystal meth. High-profile dark web marketplaces, such as Silk Road and Alpha Bay, were notorious for their role in trafficking illicit drugs across the world.
- Fake IDs and user accounts: Forfeited passports, identification documents, and accounts for services such as Uber and Coinbase are regularly found on the dark web. These are used to circumvent identification and security measures in places like airports and government offices.
- Personal data and information: Personal data that is obtained through a data breach or hack often ends up on the dark web. Various dark web sites regularly list datasets, including addresses, credit card information, and medical and financial records for sale.
- Weapons and ammunition: While the dark web plays a small role in global arms trafficking, it is gaining prominence as a channel to sell arms to terrorists and non-state actors. This is especially true for the “lone wolf,” a terrorist who acts alone and does not rely on a larger organization for weapons.
- Illegal porn: There are websites on the dark web dedicated to illegal porn containing content such as bestiality, child pornography, rape, and extreme violence. Accidentally watching or downloading these videos means potentially breaking laws in the country you’re in.
Dark web services
In addition to illegal and dangerous products, the dark web is also used to offer and contract potentially illegal and criminal services. Some of the services known to be offered on the dark web include:
- Malware and malware as a service: The dark web is replete with different exploits kits and off-the-shelf malware. Cybercriminals can purchase and implement these to attack users. Additionally, cybercriminals also provide access to botnets to launch distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks. The services of a hacker to launch a ransomware attack can also be purchased.
- Scam campaigns: Users can purchase access to botnets that are used to send spam or phishing emails to user accounts. Hackers choose to sell botnet access on the dark web due to its anonymity.
- Professional hitmen: In addition to cybercrime, the dark web can also be used to purchase the services of real-world criminals, such as hitmen. It goes without saying that such an act would be clearly illegal, regardless of whether the services were purchased on the dark web.
- Money laundering: The dark web is home to services that allow users to mix their ill-gotten gains with other legal transactions to avoid detection by law enforcement. This helps criminals launder their money back into the financial system.
Is the Dark Web Legal?
Given the nature of products and services available on the dark web, you may be wondering whether the dark web is legal. In one word: yes. The dark web and the Tor browser are legal in most countries.
Indeed, the primary motivation behind the Tor browser is the enhanced anonymity and privacy it provides. As such, it is an important tool to uphold the right to privacy, which is widely recognized as a basic human right. There are several applications and uses of the dark web that are not considered illegal or nefarious, such as:
- Circumvention of government censorship and controls
- Anonymous communication, reporting, and whistleblowing
- Access to books and documents unavailable on the surface web
- Access to forums and communities centered around niche content
When is using the dark web illegal?
Simply accessing the dark web using the Tor browser should be perfectly legal in most countries. However, in certain situations, you could face legal consequences for using the dark web. For example:
- When Tor and the dark web are explicitly banned in your country: Some countries like Russia and China have outlawed the dark web. We encourage you to research the legal status of the dark web in your country before accessing it.
- If you use the dark web for illegal acts: Using the dark web will not shield you from criminal liability if you are caught purchasing illegal products or services. Government entities, such as the FBI, regularly monitor the dark web for activity.
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 the anonymity it is today? Let’s find out.
|The birth of the internet (1960-1990)||The internet traces its origins to the ARPANET, a project backed by the U.S. military which facilitated communication between devices using phone lines. It sought to create a decentralized network to exchange information external actors could not attack or target.|
|The internet goes public (1990-2002)|
|In the 1990s, the internet was made public in many countries worldwide. Millions of individuals began to use it to transfer files and share information. With an increase in the commercial use of the internet, concerns about its use for surveillance also began to arise. This led to the creation of projects aimed at facilitating anonymous communication and file sharing using the internet.|
|The emergence of Tor and the dark web (2000-2011)||A government-backed project aimed at anonymous file sharing resulted in the creation of the Tor browser. Due to its anonymity, the browser spawned the dark web. In its initial years, the dark web was primarily used to avoid censorship and anonymously share information. However, it also started to be used to host illegal content.|
|Bitcoin and the growth of dark web transactions (2011-2015)||Prior to the creation of Bitcoin, there were limited avenues for anonymous online transactions. However, after its creation, dark web users had a means to transfer funds to each other anonymously, resulting in the creation of dark web marketplaces. Such marketplaces became increasingly popular for selling banned substances and criminal services. This was the period when the Silk Road, one of the most notorious marketplaces, was at its peak.|
|Government crackdown (2015-today)||The increasing use of dark web marketplaces for criminal activity made government intervention inevitable. Over the past decade, law enforcement agencies have shut down several dark web marketplaces, including Silk Road and Alpha Bay. They have developed techniques to identify Tor nodes and intercept communications. While marketplaces on the dark web remain active, there is an increased risk of legal consequences for using them due to increased government surveillance.|
Exploring the Dark Web
The dark web can be fascinating, mysterious, and intriguing. It has a lot of sites and tools that can’t be found on the surface web. As such, we understand that several users will want to explore it firsthand. However, it’s imperative that users take proper safety measures when visiting dark web websites.
One of the most important protection measures to take is to use a VPN alongside the Tor browser when surfing the dark web. Additionally, you should also have a good antivirus scanner installed to prevent malicious files and programs from infecting your device. Want to learn more about the dark web and what you can do with it? Check out the articles listed below:
- Dark Web Facts vs Myths: What You Need to Know in 2023
- The 18 Best Dark Web Books to Read in 2023
- The 10 Most Notorious Cases on the Dark Web
Do you need a quick answer to your questions about the dark web? Click on the questions below to reveal the answer.
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.
There are many different kinds of websites on the dark web, from regular websites that have a .onion domain (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.
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.
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.