In this article, we explore the dark web. We will be answering questions like, “What is the dark?”, “What can you find on the dark web?”, ” Why is the dark web important?”, “What do you need to access the dark web?”, and “How to safely access the dark web?” In a follow-up article, we’ll look at how it is relevant for lawyers.
What is the dark web?
To properly explain what the dark web is, it is best to put it in context. Usually, when we use the World Wide Web, we consult websites we know, and we use search engines to find other information that is publicly accessible. This part of the Internet that is available to the public and can be found through search engines is often referred to as the surface web. (The terms clear web and Clearnet are also occasionally used). It’s one part of the Internet that most of us access on a daily basis.
Apart from that, there is information that is not freely accessible to all and that is not indexed by search engines. This includes all the information where access is restricted, and you need credentials to be able to access it. This is called the deep web. It comprises all kinds of subscriptions you may have, all the information your service providers keep on their private databases, your bank account and medical records, email & financial information, academic and scientific databases, legal documents, etc. If, as a lawyer, you use a cloud-based solution to run your firm, all that information is stored in the deep web, too. Even most social media are not indexed by search engines, and therefore are part of the deep web. Most of us access the deep web, too, on a daily basis.
This deep web is by large the biggest part of the Internet. Estimates about what percentage of the Internet is publicly accessible range between 0.1 to 10 percent. In other words, anywhere between 90 to 99.9 percent of the Internet belongs to the deep web.
The dark web, sometimes called the darknet, is a part of the deep web for which you need extra tools to gain access to it. The information is encrypted, and you need at least a specialised browser to access it. A Virtual Private Network (VPN) and good antivirus software and a firewall are usually recommended as well if you want to access it safely.
Summarizing, there are three parts of the World Wide Web: a) the publicly accessible and indexed part, called the surface web, b) the part that is not indexed by search engines and is not accessible to everyone, called the deep web, a c) a part that is hidden and for which special tools are needed, referred to as the dark web.
What can you find on the dark web?
When we think of the dark web, we typically think of hackers, illegal markets and pornography, pirated content, and other types of cybercrimes. But there are positive aspects to the dark web too. It provides safe ways, e.g., for activists and whistleblowers to share information. There are chat rooms for developers. And you’ll even find copies of popular websites on the dark web, which allow people who live in locations where Internet access is restricted to still access them.
Here is a list of examples of what you can find:
- Link directories to find the URLs for websites on the dark web. (As the content is not indexed by search engines, you have to rely on these link directories).
- Dark web versions of popular websites: most social media and news outlets, e.g., also have dark net versions.
- Email services.
- File uploads and transfers. These include both perfectly legal as well as illegal – e.g., pirated – files.
- Forums and chat boards, including forums for freedom fighters and protestors, developers, journalists, but also hackers.
- Whistleblowing websites and tip-off pages, which are commonly used by the press.
- Blogs run by privacy-conscious individuals.
- Black Markets.
- Bitcoin / cryptocurrency services.
- Hacking groups and services.
- Financing and fraud.
- Illegal pornography.
- Hoaxes and unverified content.
- Pirated Content.
A report, called Into the Web of Profit and discussed in the CSO Online article, identified 12 categories of tools or services that could present a risk in the form of a network or data breach compromise:
- Infection or attacks, including malware, distributed denial of service (DDoS) and botnets
- Access, including remote access Trojans (RATs), keyloggers and exploits
- Espionage, including services, customization and targeting
- Support services such as tutorials
- Customer data
- Operational data
- Financial data
- Intellectual property/trade secrets
- Other emerging threats
“The report also outlined three risk variables for each category:
- Devaluing the enterprise, which could include undermining brand trust, reputational damage or losing ground to a competitor
- Disrupting the enterprise, which could include DDoS attacks or other malware that affects business operations
- Defrauding the enterprise, which could include IP theft or espionage that impairs a company’s ability to compete or causes a direct financial loss”.
Why is it important?
With all the illegal activity going on, on the dark web, the question is often raised whether it would not be better to shut it down altogether. But that would be a clear case of throwing out the baby with the bath water, as the dark web offers some essential services.
Historically, the dark web was created for US intelligence and counterintelligence services to safely exchange information. Then several civil rights groups started using it as well because it allowed them to also exchange information safely and anonymously. And then the criminals hopped on board too.
By now, it is also being used by journalists, activists, whistleblowers, and freedom fighters. And as mentioned above, copies of popular websites on the dark web provide access to people who could otherwise would not be able to access them.
What do you need to access it?
So, how can you safely access the dark web? To safely access the dark web, three or four items are recommended. First, you need a browser for the dark web. Next, it is recommended that you always use a Virtual Private Network (VPN), and that you have up-to-date antivirus software. A good firewall comes in handy, too.
A browser for the dark web: the dark web uses encrypted information on web addresses that end on a .onion extension. By default, most browsers cannot read these websites. The TOR browser was created specifically for the dark web. It is a customised version of the Firefox browser with specific enhancements to guarantee privacy and anonymity. It can also route information through trusted nodes, so it cannot be intercepted. But note, that by default, if a normal internet connection is available, Tor will use that one, and you must choose to use the Tor network to make use of its own nodes.
The Tor browser is not the only one that can be used to access the dark web. Two popular browsers, Firefox and Opera, can easily be configured, too, to access the dark web. This is, however, not recommended as they do not have other privacy protecting enhancements built in. Several companies have created customised versions on the Tor browser, typically with enhanced functionality like higher encryption, etc. These include Subgraph OS, Waterfox, Tails, and Whoix.
A Virtual Private Network (VPN): in essence, a virtual private network is a tool that allows you to surf anonymously on the Internet. Usually, when you surf the web, your IP address is visible not only to all websites you visit, but also to all the Internet nodes that relay the information between your computer or mobile device and that website. What a VPN does, is route that traffic through a server and the IP address of that server is used instead. VPN service providers typically have servers in many countries, so you can choose which country you pretend to be surfing from. On top of that, all communication is also encrypted for enhanced security.
Up-to-date antivirus and a firewall: the dark web can be a very dangerous place and accessing dark web websites can be risky. Websites with illegal content will almost always try and install malware on your device, but other sites may be infected, too. Up-to-date antivirus software and a firewall help reduce the risk but cannot eliminate it altogether.
How to access the dark web in five easy steps
The safest way to access the dark web is on a desktop, rather than a mobile device. (Some security experts explicitly advise against using a mobile device to access the dark web). Once you’ve installed TOR, or a compatible browser, and you’ve installed your VPN, you can access the dark web in five easy steps.
- The first step is to open your VPN software.
- In your VPN software, connect to a server in a different country.
- Open the Tor browser.
- Click the “Connect” button.
- You are now ready to begin browsing the dark web.
Remember, the content of the dark web is not indexed. So, you can’t really use a search engine to find information. Your alternative is to use one of the many dark web directories. But keep in mind that these get outdated fast. Only the dark web versions of popular surface web websites tend to keep the same URLs.
Extra recommendations for safe access
The dark web can be a dangerous place. It is therefore good to take some extra safety measures.
- Create a Tor-specific user account. Never use an email address or even a password that you have used before. Use an anonymous encrypted email account and aliases that you have never used before either and that cannot be traced to you. Never use this user account outside Tor.
- Don’t use your mobile phone for 2-step verification on Tor.
- Never use your real name or photos. Don’t post any of your personal information.
- Never have dark web stores mail packages delivered to your real address — use a PO box.
- Don’t send unencrypted data over Tor. For that same reason, do not use HTTP websites on Tor, because they are not encrypted.
- Don’t forget to delete cookies and local website data.
- Don’t use Tor for Google search.
- Don’t connect to the same server with and without Tor simultaneously.
- Don’t install browser plugins, as they can be manipulated into revealing your IP address.
- You may even consider using the TAILS operating system (which is booted as a live DVD or live USB), as this leaves no digital footprint on the host machine.
In a follow-up article, we will look at what lawyers need to know about the dark web.