When most of us think of the Internet, we're thinking of the sites and services we use on a daily basis, which are accessible by regular browsers and searchable with Google. But beneath this everyday web lies a whole other internet called the deep web, where sites are hidden unless you know how to use them and what to look for. Technically the deep web includes all internet pages that aren't accessible by regular search engines, including archived sites and unlinked content. Within this amorphous deep web lies a subset of sites purposefully designed to be inaccessible, requiring special software to visit – called the dark web.
The dark web is a collection of sites that aren’t accessible by regular search engines or browsers. These sites have URLs that don't end in the traditional host suffixes (like .com, .fr, .eu, and so on) and require special browsers to open. Particular “dark” networks of sites require particular browsers to open, with the Tor network being one of the most well-known of these, requiring the Tor browser to access.
Because browsers such as Tor offer anonymized browsing, the lesser-visited, dark side of the internet also tends to be associated with the digital black market, including eBay-esque marketplaces for illicit substances and weapons, and forums where hackers may post stolen personal information and malware for sale.
User passwords for media services such as Netflix and Hulu were recently discovered at 15 dark web marketplaces, while research by Top10VPN found that hacked logins from dozens of massive brands like Verizon, PayPal and Uber are being sold across the dark web for anywhere between $2 and $250, including enough information to steal someone’s entire identity.
Sadly, child pornography is also rife on the dark web – the FBI recently took down a darknet child exploitation site by cracking the Tor browser to identify visitors to the site. You aren’t likely to stumble onto this type of disturbing content without seeking it out, but it’s worth being aware of the fact that plenty of depravities have an outlet in this darker, anonymous internet.
While dark web cybercrime is thriving, there is also a vast array of dark websites that appear designed for an outside-the-mainstream but legal existence, such as databases that aim to “liberate knowledge” by posting free scientific papers, forums hosting discussions of anarchy, science, future technology, or whistleblower sites that promise safe, anonymous posts.
How to surf the dark web
Addresses on the Tor network follow the form of a random string of letters followed by the .onion suffix, like this link to the Tor search engine: http://xmh57jrzrnw6insl.onion/. These links are only accessible using the Tor browser, downloadable from Tor. To visit a link, you either need to know the full address, get it from a deep web directory (such as Hidden Wiki) or find it via suggestions on Reddit, where many threads are devoted to discussions about deep web business.
Google “Hidden Wiki” with the Tor browser to hit its surface web address. From there, you can click a link to its deep web (.onion) version, which contains dozens of links beneath such familiar categories as commercial services, marketplaces, financial services and that Internet stalwart, the genteelly named erotica. Also at the surface web address, you’ll find links to news and history of the deep web, a good read for newcomers to the whole thing.
Once on the deep web, to find content, you’ll usually need to know your address. You might want to browse Reddit threads dedicated to reputable dark websites. The Reddit threads r/Onions and r/Tor may have helpful discussion and news about using Tor and the dark web. And r/DarkWebLinks contains links to sites deemed worthy though sometimes those sites are scams. The deep web directory Hidden Wiki is a good starting point for browsing categories to stumble through interests, while deep web search engines TORCH and notEvil can occasionally turn up something you're specifically looking for. There are also dedicated search engines to ferret out darknet pages much as you might use Google – though you’ll find that the subterranean internet isn’t as well indexed and you may do a good deal of bouncing around forum pages before finding a solid website for whatever it is you wanted to do.
While the Tor browser protects your IP address by routing your traffic through a series of other Tor users’ computers (called nodes), if for some reason you don’t want your computer to be identified as using the Tor browser – which may have repercussions in countries where internet traffic is heavily monitored - you may want to set up the bridge relay option (see screenshot), which routes your traffic through a “surface” website instead of connecting directly to the Tor network. The Tor site has more tips for protecting your anonymity when Tor-browsing.
Whether you do that or not, you’ll find that browsing using Tor is much slower than using standard browsers because traffic is traveling through several nodes before arriving at your destination website.
Browsing on the deep deb isn't like browsing on the surface. For one thing, websites are basic affairs reminiscent of 1990s internet sites, and many of them hark back to that era. Because the rerouting of traffic means pages load slowly, these sites need to remain simple to avoid even longer load times. They're also down far more often than surface websites supported by ads and run on professional servers; a site that won’t load one day may work just fine the next.
Many pages don't link to others, and it can be difficult to revisit pages if you can't remember the long strings of random text that make up the address. Bookmarking favorites could be a good idea unless you're worried that your computer could be spied on or stolen.
What you can find on the dark web
There are plenty of illicit marketplaces on the dark web, hawking items such as credit card details, passport scans, drugs, weapons, hackers services, and assassins-for-hire. These online black markets take bitcoin only, so interested buyers first need to head to a bitcoin exchange to turn their fiat money into virtual cash. Marketplaces may go down without warning – for example, one popular marketplace, Dream, was not accessible during the writing of this article.
Wall Street Market is another popular site that mirrors the eBay model for drugs, stolen information, cracked software and more, with moderators who test products on offer to make sure sales are kosher and offer dispute resolution. Buyers of ‘adulterated products’ can report to the staff and potentially get a refund. The site has over 550,000 customer accounts.
Scams do abound on dark web marketplaces. Offers on anything from discount iPhones to a brand new Dutch passport usually are as fishy as they sound. Directories like Hidden Wiki often note beside particular links if they have turned out to be scams, while the subreddit thread /r/DarkWebLinks keeps an updated list of (comparatively) legit sites and marketplaces.
Most of the products on these marketplaces are illegal, so how likely are buyers to get arrested? Not very, according to dark web experts. “Government actions [tracking Tor activity] seem to be focused on people coordinating and leading criminal activity, not people who are only using Tor for whatever purpose, even illegal purchases,” says Chester Wisniewski, senior security advisor at Sophos.
Fake currency and laundered bitcoin
On the Dark Web, users can find counterfeit cash in Euros, dollars and pounds sterling on offer. You can also find hacked accounts and dozens of bitcoin tumblers that launder bitcoin used for illicit transactions by scrambling its path from buyer to seller.
USJUD sells $20 and 20-euro bills that are apparently made in Asia and shipped from France. The site claims that the bills pass the pen detector test but “usually” not the infrared detector. Serial numbers are also repeated within each order, and buyers are advised to spend the bills at small casinos, gambling machines and other smaller, independent venues that presumably have fewer facilities for verifying the authenticity of their customers' cash.
If counterfeit cash and the associated in-person trading it entails seems too risky, CCPal offers batches of 100 eBay, PayPal or credit card accounts, with an 80% guarantee and full order replacement if more than 20% aren't active. And Hackintosh Apple store claims to sell real Apple products at discounted prices. Like many stores, it sounds too good to be true – and very nearly legit.
So how do you find out what's a scam and what it isn't? As user Coeysus says on a Reddit thread asking that same question, “No escrow means no [it's not legit].”
Fake passports and travel documents
Passports are hot property on the dark web, with numerous vendors guaranteeing their fake documents could be used to travel and open bank accounts, and one vendor charging £2,000 for a British passport with the buyer’s real information entered into the immigration database.
To see what was available in that department, I headed to the notEvil Deep Web search engine and typed in ”new passport.” The most common result was Onion Identity services, which offers users the chance to buy (extremely fraudulent and illegal) passports apparently directly issued from authorities, only with their photo substituted.
Onion Identity allowed me a choice of Canadian, Lithuanian, Danish, Dutch or British passports at prices ranging from 1,250 euros for a Canadian document to 1,800 euros for British papers, to be paid in bitcoin. I could also have bought drivers' licenses and national ID cards from European countries for around 550 euros each. The shop was even offering referral incentives – users can earn 1% back for everything a friend purchases.
Killers for hire
The founder of the notorious, now-shuttered dark web marketplace Silk Road was snared by the FBI when he hired an undercover federal agent for a contract kill – allegedly the second he had placed the order.
A few cursory attempts on my part to find something similar turned up a forum where someone had posted a Gmail address to contact for an assassin, and a single-page site that promised to “neutralize” my problems for $5,000 to $7,000 ($10,000, if I wanted to throw in “extended suffering”).
The lighter side of the dark web
The dark web offers more than just a shadowy recess for anonymous black market transactions. Its anonymous nature means it can offer useful resources for people in repressive countries where websites are censored and web connections are monitored.
The New Yorker’s SecureDrop allows whistleblowers to securely and anonymously share files and messages with the magazine’s writers and editors. Against Servants purports to deliver information about the habits and extravagant behaviors of political servants around the world. KavKaz Centre is a deep web mirror of the kavkaznews.com site that covers news from Russian and Chechnya, including articles about Putin that would probably not be acceptable in the motherland.
The dark web also hosts many sites that could easily be hosted on the surface web, such as single-page sites that are social or political manifestos, or forums for geeky or esoteric but totally licit topics. For example, IntelExchange is a forum where topics range from engineering to quantum soul theory.
For those that are intent on anonymity, almost any communication service on the regular web has its secure, encrypted dark web counterpart: email services, social networks, personal messaging and site hosting services for your own deep web domain. You might search for trusted services on a regular search engine, or a darknet search engine.
The launch of .onion addresses for Facebook as well as the Pulitzer-Prize winning ProPublica reflects the number of users on Tor browsers who use it as a private way to browse the Internet (including such non-nefarious activity as Facebook), and many sites with addresses on the deep web are not purveyors of illicit products but simply offer content they want to be universally available across the internet regardless of its users’ location.
Though what's been reported about the deep web often focuses on its darker or harmful content, the darknet holds potential as a place to securely communicate.
Staying safe while browsing the dark web
When you’re registering to use marketplaces or other services, don't use anything from your real life as your handle. So, “not your dog's name, not your birth year,” Wisniewski says.
“The safest thing [from an anonymity point of view] is to boot the Tor browser from a read-only medium like a DVD or USB drive to access the deep web network.” This prevents sites from leaving cookies or other trackers, which could be a problem if you next surf to a site where you normally use your identity to log into an account.
Finally, remember the dark web is a fascinating, but dangerous place—a walk in a bad neighborhood from the relative safety of your computer. If you want to take a look around, you'll need to apply more than the usual safety measures.
[Image credit: dark web browsing via BigStockPhoto]