An explainer for regular people
You’ve likely heard the term “dark web” in the headlines and news stories, but very few of us really know what it means. It certainly sounds scary and foreboding, but what is this place? Where is it? What can you do there? How do you get there—and should you go?
Here are the answers so you can understand:
What and where is it?
Picture that the internet is like an iceberg. There’s what we see and use on the surface, and then there’s a whole area submerged in the deep.
The internet we all know and love is right there in the light of day. It’s where websites are indexed by search engines to make them easily searchable and reachable. The dark web, however, lives on an encrypted network below the surface layer. Not only is it not indexed, you need a special kind of browsing software to access it—one that masks your IP address to make your online activity anonymous.
Now, to be clear, the deep web isn’t the same as the dark web. The deep web refers to any internet content that’s not indexed by browsers, either because site owners have blocked it from happening or the content is behind log-in pages. Your online banking account, for example, is an example of content that exists (or should) in the deep web. The dark web, however, is a different animal. Not only is it not indexed, you have to an anonymizing browser to visit.
What can you do there?
To be fair, just because it’s called the dark web doesn’t necessarily mean it’s an inherently bad place. You can find people to chat with, join online clubs, and other pretty wholesome activities (if you’d like more, Lifehacker has a list of other perfectly normal things you can do there).
The dark web can also be a haven for those living in countries where the internet is censored. People can go out on the dark web to share information while protecting their privacy.
All of this said, the dark web—because of the anonymity it provides—has a well-earned reputation for being used illicit activity and crime. Perhaps you remember the headlines from a few years back about the Silk Road? It was an online black market, frequently used to sell illegal drugs until it was shut down by the FBI and the founder was arrested. In addition to illegal goods, data—credit cards, passwords, usernames, and more—can be found and purchased on the dark web by the highest bidder.
How do you get there?
Normally connecting to a website is pretty simple. Your Chrome, Safari, Edge, or Firefox browser makes a request for a server address and you get connected. Getting to the dark web requires you to download a special browser that does something different. Most frequently people use something called Tor. Tor stands for “The Onion Router,” because the system uses encryption in the layers of communication protocol, like the layers of an onion, to conceal your identity.
Tor is free and open-source and it takes your web page requests and routes them through a series of random servers (like, thousands) which conceals a user’s real location. It relies on volunteers to help move the dark web traffic, which also means it can be a slow trip.
There are other anonymizing browsers out there, such as Zeronet, Freenet, and I2P.
Should you go there?
Ultimately that decision is up to you. Going to the dark web is akin to wandering into a known “rough part of town,” so to speak, where criminals are known to live and the crime rate is high. Because of this, according to some online sources, intelligence agencies do keep an eye on anonymous web traffic as best they can. Therefore, even if you have legit reason to be on the dark web, you could get wrapped up in a law enforcement sweep (and Norton says “a mistaken keystroke or simple curiosity may not be a reliable defense.”). Also, because of the criminal activity on the dark web, you should be very careful about clicking links—you could end up downloading malware by accident or having your tech infected with viruses.