What Is the Dark Web?

The Dark Web Explained

A dark-web user explores .onion sites.

 RapidEye / Getty Images

The "dark web" is an area of the internet that standard browsers and search engines, like Safari and Google, can't access or "see." The dark web is anonymous, too.

In this article we'll shed some light on the dark web, what it's used for, and why.

What Is the Dark Web?

The dark web has its origins in spy craft and intrigue. In the early 1990s, the U.S. Department of Defense wanted to develop an area of the web inaccessible to the public that could be used anonymously by spies and others to securely communicate. Researchers also realized that the dark web could be used by activists in repressive regimes to communicate with the outside world.

Today, major news outlets, Facebook, and law enforcement, as well as the CIA, have sites on the dark web hoping to attract "walk-in" traffic for information as well as providing an anonymous means of communication for dissidents and activists in oppressive regimes.

The dark web also has a very disturbing side. Criminals use it to sell stolen identities, guns, drugs, and other illicit material. The rise of cryptocurrencies, like Bitcoin, as an anonymous payment system has fueled the use of the dark web for criminal activity. According to a study by the security firm Chainanalysis, there was more than $10 billion of illicit Bitcoin transactions on the dark web from 2017 to 2019.

How Does the Dark Web Work?

The dark web uses technology called “onion routing” to protect users from surveillance and tracking. The U.S. Naval Research Laboratory worked on onion routing in the 1990s. In the early 2000s, The Onion Routing (Tor) project launched its own efforts to develop onion routing and made the technology publicly available.

The Tor project made its technology more accessible to the average person when it introduced a Tor web browser in 2008. The Tor browser is free and available in Google Play and the Apple App Store. You can use the Tor browser to connect to Tor network, .onion sites, and .com sites. Unlike Safari and Chrome or search engines like Google, the Tor browser and search engine will not collect and store any user information.

To protect your information, the Tor network runs your dark web usage through 7,000 relay points, thereby covering your tracks and making your browsing virtually untraceable. For those looking for relief from internet advertising and tracking, using the Tor browser might be a welcome change.

Tor was a critical part of the Arab Spring uprising that started in 2010. Protesters were able to use it to communicate and access social media anonymously.

For most people, though, their interaction with the dark web is likely limited to using a credit-monitoring service that scans the dark web for signs of identity theft. 

Is the Dark Web Dangerous?

If you decide to explore the dark web, you'll need to be careful where you visit, what you click on, and whom you interact with. Just like the surface internet, it may not be what you think.

The same hackers who are trying to attack your device on the surface internet are also on the dark web. Make sure you are taking security measures to protect yourself:

  • Keep software updated, including your operating system (iOS, Android, Windows), and your browser
  • Use a VPN (virtual private network)
  • Secure your network with a strong password
  • Don't use your standard email address on the dark web
  • Beware of email "phishing" scams

The Dark Web vs. The Deep Web

The internet that most of us interact with every day is called the surface web. Search engines like Google can see websites on the surface web. There is a much larger part of the internet called the deep web. The IRS estimates that the deep web has 375 times more data stored on it than the surface web. 

The dark web is a part of the deep web that can only be accessed from a specialized browser. Some of the main differences between the deep web and dark web are:  

  Deep Web Dark Web
Search Engines Not accessible by search engine Not accessible by search engine
Contains All unindexed websites. Part of deep web using .onion
Domain Names All .onion
Access Not publicly available. Need password or specialty software Not publicly available. User needs .onion address
Used For Legitimate non-public, intranet, private databases, etc. Legitimate non-public; illicit activities
Used By Corporations, nonprofits, government agencies Journalists, intelligence agencies, law enforcement, political dissidents, criminals

Key Takeaways

  • The dark web is an area of the internet that standard search engines can't see.
  • The dark web operates to keep users anonymous. It can be used to evade government censorship and scrutiny, as well as to pursue criminal activity.  
  • Anyone can access the dark web using a Tor browser.
  • If you decide to explore the dark web, be sure to take the necessary security measures.