The Dark Web. Does it sound scary? Do those two little words send an obscure chill up your spine? Do you know why you feel this way? 

The dark web is known as a haven for illegal activity that many people seem all too happy to keep at arm’s length, but what the heck is it, exactly, and does it have other purposes?

This article will shed some light on the dark web and outline its many uses.

What is the dark web?

The internet has three main parts to it: surface web, deep web, and dark web. The surface web makes up about 10% of the whole internet, and includes anything that anyone can find by entering terms in a search engine like Google or Yahoo.

The deep web (despite its foreboding name) is simply where information is stored that is not easily accessible by anyone. This includes anything that is protected by a password, from subscription services to bank account and medical information. This section actually makes up the majority of the web.

The dark web is anything that is not accessible by standard browsers like Google Chrome or Firefox. Any type of information can reside on the dark web, it’s merely dark because of its more limited accessibility.

Now, that wasn’t so bad, was it?

When was it created?

Well, if you dust off your internet history book, you’ll find that the original internet, ARPANET, sent its first message in 1969. It didn’t take long after that for covert networks, or dark nets, to spring up.

How do I get on the dark web?

First, you may be wondering if getting onto the dark web is illegal. The answer is ‘no’. What could be illegal is what you do once you get on there, but that is really up to you.

So, now that we’ve cleared that up, how do you, intrepid explorer, get onto the dark web?

Well, the most popular method is using the Tor anonymous browser. This browser can be downloaded just like Chrome or Firefox or any other browser of choice, but it works a bit differently.

Tor stands for “The Onion Router” which refers to the way it works. Internet activity via Tor must travel through different overlay networks, or layers (like an onion), each of which helps encrypt the traffic from your computer. Because of these extra layers of security, Tor works slower than regular browsers. Many Tor users also recommend using a VPN simultaneously for maximum privacy.

But remember, Tor itself is not the dark web, it’s just a tool for browsing the dark web. With Tor, you can access all the same content you usually do in a secure manner — or you can go deeper. That’s where .onion suffix websites come in. If you see this ending to a website address (instead of .com, .net, etc.) that means it’s dark web, and you’ll need the Tor browser to access it. Sites with the .onion suffix won’t show up in regular search engines, even if you’re using Tor, so surfers of the dark web make use of special directories for that purpose.

What is the dark web used for?

If you’ve heard anything about the dark web, you’ve probably heard about illicit dealings. What the dark web really is, though, is a place for extreme online privacy. One thing you can do on the dark web is buy mail-order illegal drugs. Another thing you can do is read the New York Times or surf Facebook, both of which have .onion dark web versions (though you’ll still be asked to subscribe or log in). What you ultimately do on the dark web depends on your personal needs.

Let’s say you live in a country like Iran, where many popular websites, like Facebook and Twitter, are censored. Well, using Tor to access blocked sites, and furthermore, using dark web .onion versions (when available) can ensure your access and your peace of mind online. Though it must be noted that many people who use Tor and the dark web mainly for privacy (rather than access) would probably find the use of Facebook’s dark web site to be ironic because of the site’s many innate privacy issues.

Whistleblowers, journalists, and protestors against governmental oppression have also made use of private online tools like Tor and the dark web.

But privacy is privacy for the do-gooders, the do-badders, and everyone in between. While the dark web allows average people to avoid governmental and corporate spying and data collecting, it also enables the abuse of the same average people. One example: the dark web is a prime place to distribute and sell malware. Another example: the privacy of the dark web allows for fraud such as the sale of stolen credit card numbers. And, a discussion of the dark web and online privacy wouldn’t be complete without mentioning cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and Ethereum, which are the lifeblood that allows private transactions to prosper (on both the dark web and the surface internet).

There was also the controversial website, Silk Road, a dark web marketplace where nearly anything could be procured. The site facilitated, among other things, a robust user-reviewed drug trade, which ironically was reported to have actually reduced the violent street drug trade. In 2013, the FBI shut down the site. The FBI has also confiscated servers and deployed malware to catch a dark web pedophile ring, proving that law enforcement can shed light on the more horrid corners of the dark web and find ways around the layers of secrecy.

Oh, and by the way, here’s a fun fact: the US government has given a lot of funding to Tor. And as for average users, though you may not be up to anything dastardly, it’s possible that even checking out Tor puts you on a list.

The future may be dark

No privacy tool is perfect, but as privacy invasions from hackers and corporations become more prevalent every day, more people may be turning to “dark” methods to retain some modicum of online privacy. If you’re not ready to go full Tor or dark web, you can still get a VPN, which encrypts your connection to help keep you anonymous online.

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