What is the dark web?

Here’s our basic guide to the dark web, deep web and Tor

In November 2015, the UK government announced that GCHQ and the National Crime Agency (NCA) would be joining forces to tackle serious crimes and child pornography on the dark web. At the time, director of GCHQ Robert Hannigan said that the new Joint Operations Cell (JOC) will be “committed to ensuring no part of the internet, including the dark web, can be used with impunity by criminals to conduct their illegal acts”.

So what is the dark web? How does it differ from the deep web? What is it used for and how do people access it? Here are the essentials on the dark side of the internet.

What’s the difference between the dark web and the deep web?

The deep web and the dark web are sometimes used interchangeably, but they are in fact different – yet overlapping – things. Put simply, the deep web relates to the portions of the web that, for whatever reason, aren’t crawled by conventional search engines such as Google. That not only includes secret web servers but also everything from private cloud storage to work intranets and online banking.

The deep web is, therefore, huge. Michael Bergman’s early 2001 study, “The Deep Web: Surfacing Hidden Value”, estimated that it contained 7,500 terabytes of information, compared to 19 terabytes of information on the surface web. Most of this is perfectly legal and an essential part of how the internet works.

The dark web is a particular subsection of the deep web. It relates to a collection of websites that purposefully hide the IP address of their servers, normally by using Tor encryption tools or similar services such as the Invisible Internet Project (I2P). It is a deliberately hidden section of the internet – and like deliberately hidden rooms in physical buildings, it can be used for both good and evil. It can be used by political dissidents or journalists to communicate outside of state surveillance, but it can also be used by crime syndicates to exchange weapons or child pornography.

What is Tor?

Tor (The Onion Router) is the gateway to the dark web. There are alternative networks, such as the I2P and Freenet, but Tor is the most widely used. If you see a .onion extension on a dark web link, you’ll need Tor to open it. On the Tor website, there is everything you need to get started, including a download of the browser.

Tor directs traffic through a distributed network encompassing thousands of relays and its appeal comes from the anonymity this process affords its users. Onion routing, the main principle behind Tor, was initially developed by the US Navy in order to protect US intelligence online. It is now, much like the dark web it enables, used for both licit and illicit purposes.

One key point to consider when using Tor is that you’ll need to know where you want to go. Not being crawled by search engines means you can’t simply go to Google and search for sites on Tor. Instead, you’ll need to have a direct link to a website. There are subreddits on Reddit listing some of these, including DarknetMarketsNoobs, but for other sites, you’ll need to find Wikis that list links. Many of these are highly illegal, not to mention immoral, so we’re not going to put them up here.  

Similarly, this article is a guide to the basics of understanding what the dark web is, not an endorsement of it. If you’re worried about privacy and online tracking, there are easier ways to take steps to protect your data. From anonymous search engines such as DuckDuckGo and Oscobo to plugins such as Ghostery, there are simple ways to block trackers used by ad networks.

If you want to dip into the world of the dark web without diving into its depths, this NSFW thread on Reddit includes some stories that will make you laugh and many that will make you despair for humanity.

Photos: Scubabenmontillon.a

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