In this article, we’ll explore what the dark web is and how to access it safely.
What is the dark web?
The internet—and the devices we use to access it—are more interconnected than ever. In the real world, there are ways to remain anonymous and secretive by, say, paying with cash rather than a credit card.
The web makes this more difficult. It’s not easy to be anonymous on the internet. And just as there are reasons to remain anonymous in real life, there may be reasons you wish to remain anonymous on the internet. The dark web is a network of secret websites that you can’t find without a special anonymous browser.
But with anonymity comes shady actors. The dark web is a haven for scams, illegal products and stores, and information and media that would otherwise be blocked by search engines, web browsers, and social networks. The dark web is an online underground market, where people can buy and sell illegal products and services, remain hidden from their government, and contact people anonymously.
As author Kevin Mitnick writes, “Some of these hidden sites offer, sell, and provide items and services that may be illegal. Some of them are legitimate sites maintained by people in oppressed parts of the world.”
Deep web vs. dark web
It can be helpful to picture the internet as an iceberg. The highest point of the iceberg is the internet most of us know. This includes every website you access on a regular basis through your preferred web browser. Below the surface of our iceberg is the deep web. This is where people can no longer see, is data that is stored on the internet. This includes credit card information and business data.
Go one level deeper and you discover the dark web.
The dark web is the secret side of the internet. As detailed in the prior section, this is where unlisted, anonymous websites exist and can be accessed.
To understand the dark web, you need to understand Tor
Tor is an open-source browser that allows people to access web pages on the dark web. The name “Tor” is an acronym that stands for The Onion Router, and the term “onion” isn’t as random as it sounds. This special browser uses layers of connections—like an onion—to keep the actions of its users secret while exploring the web.
Here’s an explanation from Kevin Mitnick’s book, The Art of Invisibility:
“When you use Tor, the direct line between you and your target website is obscured by additional nodes, and every ten seconds the chain of nodes connecting you to whatever site you are looking at changes without disruption to you… In other words, if someone were to backtrack from the destination website and try to find you, they’d be unable to because the path would be constantly changing.”
All this to say, Tor is the most trusted browser for accessing websites on the dark web.
A short history of Tor
For all the illegal activity and secrecy that takes place on Tor, you may be surprised to learn its origin story. Tor was developed—and continues to be partially funded by—the US government.
The idea for technology like Tor began in the 1990s. Then in 2004, Tor was created by the US Naval Research Laboratory to give military personnel an anonymous way to use the internet without giving away their identity or location. This was intended to protect military personnel, while also giving them access to the full internet, even when serving from countries where the internet is heavily vetted by the local government.
Tor gained popularity over the years through two growing forces: 1) activists wanting to slow (or mitigate the reach of) mainstream surveillance, and 2) a growing marketplace for illegal activity.
How to safely access the dark web
- Start by downloading the Tor browser
- Purchase a trusted VPN
- Open Tor through your VPN
- Type in the .onion URL you’d like to visit
Is my information on the dark web?
Most people know about the dark web within the context of stolen identity and personal information. Since the dark web is anonymous and unregulated, it has become a marketplace for selling stolen passwords, IDs, and other forms of private information.
When you read in the news about hackers stealing information from banks, tech companies, and hospitals, often that stolen information eventually ends up on the dark web.
So, how do you find out if your personal information is on the dark web?
Don’t access the dark web without a quality VPN
As mentioned above, Tor offers multiple layers of encryption as you browse the dark web. But simply using Tor by itself goes against best practice. The most secure way to use Tor is through a trusted VPN. This adds one more layer of security and anonymity between yourself and bad actors on the internet.
What You Can Find on the Dark Web
The dark web is constantly changing and remains largely hidden. Below, we list down some of the things you may find on the dark web, both helpful and risky.
A word of advice: even the most innocent of tools can be dangerous when placed in the hands of the wrong people. Always be critical of any dark web content, services, software, or information that you come across, especially if they promise you too-good-to-be-true offers like free crypto or cheap Netflix hacked accounts.
The URLs listed below will only open in Tor.
As mentioned, to access a specific dark website, you need to know the exact URL of that page. And it’s not like these URLs are easy to remember either: they’re strings of random numbers, letters, and special characters.
Fortunately, there are dedicated pages that can help you find what you’re looking for. These pages usually even categorize their “onion links,” making it easier for you to browse through their list of links. Here are two of these pages, together with their onion links:
- The Hidden Wiki: http://zqktlwiuavvvqqt4ybvgvi7tyo4hjl5xgfuvpdf6otjiycgwqbym2qad.onion/wiki/index.php/Main_Page
- Daniel: http://danielas3rtn54uwmofdo3x2bsdifr47huasnmbgqzfrec5ubupvtpid.onion/
Black markets have flourished since the birth of the internet. The dark web is home to many black marketplaces, where all sorts of goods can be sold and bought, from cheap Netflix accounts to credit card numbers, weapons, and drugs.
Note that the existence of such markets is illegal.
Anonymity is highly valued in these circles, and payment methods are often limited to cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, Litecoin, and Monero as they can help ensure that buyers are never identified.
The Best Sites on the Dark Web: A Quick Summary
It’s hard to tell how many sites there are out there on the dark web, but a lot of people agree on the most worthy ones to visit. According to our research, these include:
- HiddenWiki – A handy overview with lots of links to relevant dark web sites
- DuckDuckGo – The search engine of choice on the dark web
- Ahmia – A dark web search engine that allows very detailed searches
- Daniel – Another overview of very convenient dark web links
- ProPublica – A journalism platform
- SecureDrop – A safe haven for whistleblowers
- Keybase– Secure file sharing over the dark web
Just remember: browsing the dark web can be exciting, but it’s also a dangerous affair. If you’re not careful and don’t take the right security measures, you risk infecting your computer with malware or spyware.
That’s why it’s crucial you use a solid VPN connection when browsing the dark web.