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What Is the Dark Web?

Search engine results show only a fraction of the content available on the web. A layer below these highly trafficked results lies the deep web — a trove of hidden content — and further within the deep web lies the dark web. Keep reading to find out what the dark web is and how you can access it.


What is the dark web, exactly?

The dark web consists of content that isn’t indexed by search engines and that requires certain software or authorization to access. Dark web content lives on the darknet, a part of the internet accessible only to particular browsers or through specific configurations.

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    Unlike the Dark Ages, the dark web isn’t referred to as “dark” because of a lack of information or knowledge — it is in fact chock-full of commerce and resources. But the dark internet is also designed to provide anonymity by keeping communication private through encryption and routing content through multiple servers. 

    The dark web, explained frequently as a forum for criminal activity, is not necessarily bad or teeming with dangerous elements. It’s an anonymous space on the web that can be abused or appreciated in turn.

    Now that we have some illumination around the dark web, let’s refocus: what is the deep web?

    Dark web vs. deep web

    What’s the difference between the dark web and the deep web? Let’s start on the surface. When using a search engine like Google — to ask, say, “Why is my succulent plant dying?” — the results returned come from the surface web. The surface web refers to content published publicly on the internet that doesn’t require paywalls or logins to access and is indexed by search engines. 

    So, for the query above, the search engine will likely surface (show you) articles from plant blogs devoted to succulents or how-to guides from plant nursery websites. 

    Much of the content an average person accesses on the internet is part of the deep web: your email, your online banking information, your private social media accounts, or paid streaming sites.

    If you spent time only on the surface web, you may wonder, is the deep web real, and is the deep web illegal? Yes, it’s real, and no it’s not illegal. The deep web consists of any content that lives behind paywalls, authentication forms, logins, or passwords — so you probably access the deep web quite a bit in your normal online life. Deep web content isn’t indexed and won’t show up in any normal search results. 

    In fact, much of the content an average person accesses on the internet is part of the deep web: your email, your online banking information, your private social media accounts, or paid streaming sites. You wouldn’t want your email history available on the surface web and searchable by anyone.

    Under the surface and within the deep web lies the dark web. Dark web content is purposefully unsearchable by regular search engines, but it can be accessed through Tor, an acronym that stands for The Onion Router. To use the Tor network, you can use the Tor Browser. 

    Unlike typical browsers, the Tor Browser employs onion routing, which uses encryption and directs traffic through multiple servers around the world to keep the searcher’s IP address anonymous — allowing for private searching. In addition, all domains on the Tor network end with the top-level domain “.onion” (instead of ".com"). The many layers of an onion represent the multiple layers of encryption and privacy in the Tor network.

    An iceberg showing the differences between surface web, deep web, and dark web.

    • A: The surface web includes publicly searchable websites (blogs, eshops, news sites).
    • B: The deep web consists of sites that require a login to access (email, banking portals, subscription services).
    • C: The dark web requires special tools to access, like the Tor Browser, and isn’t indexed by search engines.

    Why was the dark web created in the first place?

    The history of the dark web is said to begin with the release of Freenet in 2000. Freenet was the thesis project of Ian Clarke, a student at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, who was looking to create "A Distributed Decentralised Information Storage and Retrieval System. In other words, he was trying to create a way to anonymously communicate, exchange files, and interact online. 

    In 2002, the dark web grew significantly when researchers supported by the US Naval Research Laboratory built and released the Tor network. In the early 2000s, the internet was still young and easy to surveil — it was relatively easy to track anyone online and fairly difficult to remain anonymous. The Tor network was created to open up safe communication channels for dissidents living in countries with oppressive governments and for American intelligence operatives living around the world. 

    Later, the code base underlying Tor was released under a free license, and a nonprofit called The Tor Project was formed. In 2008, the Tor Browser was released, which let less tech-savvy people navigate the dark web more easily. 

    The Tor network was created to open up safe communication channels for dissidents living in countries with oppressive governments and for American intelligence operatives living around the world.

    The dark web may seem large, chaotic, and borderless, but it’s actually not very big. Recently, researchers from Recorded Future, estimated that there are more than 55,000 existing onion domains but that only 8,400 (or roughly 15%) of these sites were active. This means that the total network of live dark web sites is only about 0.005% of the size of the surface web. 

    Dark web domains tend to be inconsistent — new ones pop up and others disappear — which is unsurprising given the questionable legality of some of their offerings. The Tor Project says that of the 2 million people using Tor every day, only 1.5% are accessing hidden, or dark, websites. Apparently, more people use Tor to privately access normal parts of the internet rather than the dark web. Recorded Future also notes that 86% of dark web sites are in English, followed by German and Russian, which offers some insight into the anonymous user base.

    What happens on the dark web today?

    Because privacy and anonymity are the hallmarks of the dark web, it’s easy to assume that everything that happens there is illegal. And while plenty of cybercrime takes place, the dark web is used legally as well. Some people simply prefer not to share any information online and use Tor to access normal websites outside the dark web, or to check out news and forum sites within it.

    Is the dark web used for illegal purposes?

    Yes, the dark web is used for many illegal activities. It’s possible to buy and sell a variety of illegal drugs in darknet marketplaces, and some dark web commerce sites have dangerous chemicals and weapons for sale. 

    Hackers offer their services for hire, such as access to email accounts, social media profiles, or other information that can be used for identity theft. Abuse sites that include child pornography or violence are also available. And fraud and scams run rampant on the dark web: offers too good to be true, services requiring upfront payment that are never fulfilled, and even malware. In such a free, lawless place, it’s crucial to be careful where you click.

    Is the dark web dangerous?

    The dark web can certainly be dangerous — with no regulation, it’s a riskier place to hang out than the surface web. Malware, scattered like landmines around the dark web, is an especially prevalent danger. And with many unfamiliar looking sites on the dark web, it’s harder to distinguish safe websites from shady ones, and easier to become a victim. 

    Scams abound on the dark web. A site offering hitmen for hire might charge $5,000 for a job, but if they receive the money first, they have little incentive to complete it. And, of course, the person being scammed can’t exactly take their case to the police. 

    Regular travelers of the dark web know that it’s possible to exploit the sketchy reputation of the space and the services offered. They can provide listings for exactly what a new visitor to the dark web is often looking to find, and then profit off of the novice visitor’s eagerness to complete the purchase.

    Regular travelers of the dark web know that it’s possible to exploit the sketchy reputation of the space and the services offered.

    And though some dark web marketplaces offer user reviews, which provide some level of vetting, not all do. Lack of regulation by authorities and by other users allows for prime scamming opportunities — products listed and purchased, but never actually sent to the customer.

    Data breaches often show up quickly on the dark web. You can purchase compromised credit cards, social security numbers, and other data, depending on what has been exposed in the breach — this is a common way for identity theft and doxing attacks to occur.

    If you happen to be a victim, make sure you report the identity theft as soon as possible. And remember that there are better (and safer) ways to prevent identity theft than being forced to buy back your data off the dark web. 

    For continuous, iron-clad protection, we recommend Avast BreachGuard, which monitors the dark web for data breaches around the clock. If a breach is detected, BreachGuard will notify you right away and help you take the steps you need to secure your data immediately.

    The dark web may promise anonymity, but identities are not always as protected you might expect. The FBI tries to act quickly to take down sites offering illegal drugs and child pornography, and the agency is swift to take legal action against those involved. In fact, FBI double agents sometimes run these sites themselves and introduce malware to uncover other dark web users’ real identities. 

    If the FBI can use these tricks to unsheath true identities encased in anonymity, you can be sure they’re not the only ones.

    Is it illegal to access the dark web?

    Although it's not a completely safe space, it’s totally legal to access the dark web from the United States, but not all countries. Thanks to anonymous browsing, much of the dark web is devoted to illegal activities. At the same time, its privacy protections are crucial for activists and whistleblowers who want to share information to expose corruption or malfeasance, but can’t risk revealing their identities in the process.

    Nevertheless, with so much nefarious activity swirling around the darknet, it's legitimate to ask: Is the dark web illegal? Again, it isn’t (depending on the country you’re in). In fact, well-known websites like Facebook have created onion domains to expand their services to people who wish to remain anonymous or live in countries where access to the normal Facebook website is banned.

    For that reason, dark web domains can be vital for activists living in countries where free speech is limited or banned and who want to share information or organize without being prosecuted.

    Trade and commerce on the dark web

    Many darknet marketplaces offer a variety of goods. Most provide similar ecommerce experiences as you would find on a “surface” website, like the ability to apply filters to narrow results and leave reviews. These reviews provide some level of legitimacy to an otherwise anarchic marketplace, and they help warn others about lurking dangers. 

    Perhaps the most well-known marketplace was the Silk Road, which launched in 2011 and essentially functioned as an Amazon-like market for illegal drugs. In 2013, the FBI shut down the Silk Road, and its founder, Ross Ulbricht, is now serving a life sentence. 

    Dark web domains can be vital for activists living in countries where free speech is limited or banned and who want to share information or organize without being prosecuted.

    But that hasn’t stopped new marketplaces from popping up to fill the void. These new shops sometimes offer a range of items like weapons and software exploits, or they can have more specialized offerings, like recently stolen data, with the potential to even buy in bulk. 

    In the dark web’s early days, payments had to be made through PayPal or wire transfers, but with the emergence of cryptocurrency, privacy was taken to a whole new level. The ability to make anonymous payments helped darknet marketplaces flourish, with buyers purchasing in bitcoin or other types of cryptocurrency.

    What can you buy on the dark web?

    You can buy all kinds of things on the dark web, many of them illegal. Drugs are often bought and sold, along with fraudulent material like stolen data or other personal information. 

    Just as SaaS (software as a service) can be purchased on the surface web, RaaS (ransomware as a service) can be bought on the dark web. These packages often include instructions for how to successfully implement a ransomware attack, which means that you don’t have to be a skilled (ransomware) programmer to pull off a heist.

    Hackers not only sell their services, they also sell instructional materials to would-be hackers. It’s worth noting that Uber, Lime, Netflix, and many other prominent companies have all suffered hacks in the past, with their users’ accounts ending up for sale on the dark web. 

    Organs can also be found on the dark web. These probably appeal the most to those waiting for a transplant and willing to make a desperate purchase. Other items, like skulls and body parts, are also for sale. 

    As mentioned above, though hitmen can be found on the dark web, their services are often fraudulent. Other items that can be found include counterfeit goods, stolen goods, chemicals, child pornography, weapons, exotic animals, etc.

    Dark web marketplaces include a variety of illegal goods, including drugs, stolen goods, body parts, stolen credentials, and more.Dark web marketplaces offer a variety of illegal goods for sale.

    How to access the dark web

    The dark web isn’t that difficult to access. First, you’ll need to download the Tor Browser. From there, you can type in any URL you’d like to visit. It should be noted that though they both provide encryption, a VPN and Tor are not the same thing.

    Dark web browsing is not as simple as regular web surfing, and there are some tools you can use to chart your journey. The Hidden Wiki is a kind of directory of the dark web, providing links to onion domains and short descriptions of what you can find there. But some of these links may be broken or lead you to shady websites offering illegal goods and services.

    Dark web search engines

    Even after you gain access, you still have to figure out how to search on the dark web. Dark web search engines exist, but they struggle to provide quality results because websites constantly change domains, appearing and disappearing frequently. URL addresses are also often just strings of apparently random letters and numbers, which are not easy to remember.

    DuckDuckGo is an example of a search engine that exists on the surface net but that also has an onion version for the dark web. Some dark web search engines require payment to use and target drug-related sites specifically. Onionland, another dark web search engine, lets you search through keywords. Results here show up simply as a list of URLs, without any signposts or other information to help searchers navigate.

    Keeping yourself (and your data) off the dark web

    If the dark web sounds like a place you’d never like to visit, don’t worry — it’s not easy to wander in by mistake. By requiring special browsers and know-how, the dark web does a good job of attracting only those who are actively trying to get there. 

    But even if you never plan on visiting, your login credentials and other data might be on the dark web already. Normally, you wouldn’t know if your data is there, unless you know how to scan the dark web or suddenly find yourself the victim of identity fraud in the wake of a data breach.

    Avast BreachGuard — which scans the dark web for your leaked personal info — will give you a heads-up if your data ever finds its way onto the dark web. BreachGuard will help you secure and protect your data, and make sure you don’t continue to use compromised credentials. The dark web may be uncharted and risky, but it’s a unique part of the internet, and knowing more about it makes you a better, more educated, and safer surfer of the web.

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