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What is the Dark Web? How to access it and what you’ll find

When data breaches and major hacks happen, you probably hear the term “Dark Web marketplaces” get thrown around. But what is the Dark Web anyway and why are its marketplaces so important to hackers?

Simply put, the Dark Web is part of the internet that cannot be easily accessed or visited. Dark Web sites aren’t registered with search engines and are often encrypted for maximum privacy. You can only access some of these websites with the help of a special, anonymized browser.

Despite how intriguing the Dark Web may appear, the things you can find there is no laughing matter. Here’s a quick rundown of how the Dark Web works, as well as the strange and disturbing content you can discover in the web’s seedy underbelly.

The tangled web we weave

It’s a common misconception that the Dark Web is a separate internet from where Facebook and Google live. First, a quick primer on how the internet is structured in general.

The best way to think of the shape of the internet is an iceberg — what you see on the surface is only a small fraction of the actual web. Below the surface of the water lies the deep web, with the Dark Web occupying a chunk of this gargantuan mass of data.

dark-web
  • Surface Web: This is the web that you and most people are already familiar with. Komando.com can be found here, along with major websites like Google, Amazon, Twitter and Facebook. Sites on the surface web are “indexed,” which means they can be easily located via search engines. Activity on the surface web can also be easily tracked by advertisers and ISPs.
  • Dark Web: The “private internet” includes encrypted websites that are hidden from search engines and other indexing services. While not everything on the Dark Web is, strictly speaking, illegal, this is the place to go if you run shady operations like data laundering and cybercrime. Accessing the Dark Web requires special encryption software like Tor Browser.
  • Deep Web: The term deep web is often used interchangeably with Dark Web, but the definitions are actually different. The deep web simply includes all online data that isn’t registered with search engines. This includes back-end data for most of the world’s biggest websites and platforms, as well as encrypted information stored on private networks and cloud servers.

There’s much more to the internet than you might expect on the surface. But whether or not visiting the Dark Web is worth your time is another matter altogether.

How to access the Dark Web

We can understand the temptation to explore the Dark Web to see what you’re missing out on — but tread cautiously. If a website is trying to conceal itself from mainstream search engines, ISPs and governments, it probably has a very good reason for doing so.

Despite its heavy encryption and mysterious nature, getting on to the Dark Web is actually fairly easy. All you need are the right tools and knowledge of where you’ll be navigating.

1. Use Tor Browser to access the Dark Web: There are several other anonymous browsers out there, but Tor has one of the best and safest reputations. To download, visit TorProject.org and click Download Tor Browser.

2. Know the sites you’re looking for. The Dark Web isn’t accessible by Google and other search engines. You need to know the name of a site to visit it. This is the trickiest part about navigating the Dark Web.

If you must search on the Dark Web, one engine does show some Tor-compatible websites: DuckDuckGo. It has the benefit of being one of the least-data hungry search engines out there, and Dark Web users trust DuckDuckGo enough to let it index some of the more popular .onion sites. Tap or click here to find out more about DuckDuckGo and other Google alternatives.

To visit DuckDuckGo in Tor, open your browser and navigate to https://3g2upl4pq6kufc4m.onion/. Yes, that’s a real web address — Dark Web sites often use .onion URLs! It’s meant to emphasize just how deeply “layered” the internet really is.

3. Use a VPN to remain anonymous on Tor. Tor will protect your identity to an extent, but combining it with a Virtual Private Network will make you truly anonymous. For speed and security, we recommend our sponsor ExpressVPN. Not only will your data be protected, but you’ll also get faster download and upload speeds in parts of the web you wouldn’t normally.

Get an extra 3 months free of ExpressVPN when you sign up at ExpressVPN.com/Kim

What will I find when I get there?

Deciding whether to explore the Dark Web or not relies on a few different factors. Depending on what you find, you might need a strong stomach, a brave demeanor and a willingness to ignore blatant violations of the law.

As we said above, not everything on the Dark Web is illegal, but what better place is there on the internet to take sketchy businesses or illegal activities?

In your journey through the Dark Web, you may come across everything ranging from hardcore pornography, violent videos, drug marketplaces, online hitmen, conspiracy theories, political extremists, and human traffickers.

You can also find dissident or banned literature, troves of archived media and censorship-free discussion boards that are truly anonymous and encrypted.

Most notably, it’s also a place where hackers frequently gather to share and disseminate dangerous digital goods like stolen account data and so-called “cyberweapons,” such as the Pegasus malware that brought WhatsApp to its knees. Tap or click here to see why that malware was so dangerous.

In other words, most people visiting the Dark Web are going there for a specific reason. Before taking the plunge, it’s important you ask yourself why you’d want to take the risk in the first place.

Words of warning

While simply accessing the Dark Web isn’t illegal, partaking in many of the activities found there can land you in a heap of trouble. And don’t think the police aren’t paying attention — Dark Web domains can still be seized or taken down. The Silk Road, a popular online marketplace for drugs, was completely infiltrated and removed by federal agents.

Even just harmlessly “looking” can end badly, depending on what you’re looking at.

In addition to illegal content, there is also a good deal of material on the Dark Web that will no doubt disturb or sicken you. Since all communications are encrypted and anonymous, the Dark Web is a haven for internet trolls.

During your time there, you may see unhinged or sickening descriptions of physical or sexual violence. Many “assassin” or “hitman” websites, for example, contain overly long and gory “testimonials” from satisfied clients. But as with anything on the web, there’s no way to know if the content is anything more than just bluster and storytelling.

If you know the exact reason why you want to visit the Dark Web, we won’t stop you — but consider this a warning: Proceed with caution.

But if you’re just going to see if your data got caught up in a data breach or you’re looking for free movies, there are much safer options.

HaveIBeenPwned is a great resource that monitors Dark Web data leaks for signs of email addresses, and it can advise you when it’s time to change your passwords. Tap or click here to see how to use it.

For free movies, there are several ad and user-supported platforms that can get you your media fix without costing you a dime. Tap or click here to see our favorites.

In the end, only you can say for sure whether visiting the Dark Web is worth your time. We’d strongly urge avoiding it if you can help it, especially with cybercrime on the rise in light of COVID-19. Did you really think the surface internet was the only place you could pick up malware?

If your safety isn’t guaranteed when visiting, is it really worth going? Stay safe, and stay vigilant — no matter where you might end up online.

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