What is the dark web?

An image of a shadowed hooded hacker on a blue background

There's an area of the internet that isn’t normally visible to everyday users and isn't readily accessible using conventional methods of search. This hidden layer, commonly known as the dark web, is just as ominous as its branding suggests, and can only be reached using a virtual private network (VPN) or a specific web browser such as The Onion Router (Tor).

Although there are a number of ordinary services on the dark web that rely on the additional anonymity and privacy that the dark web provides, there are many others that use this for nefarious purposes. The dark web has become synonymous with illegal activity, a place where criminal marketplaces can operate without fear of interception by law enforcement agencies. As such, services that would otherwise be classed as illegal on the internet, such as the sale of drugs, weapons, and hacked personal data, or managed services that specialise in ransomware, are able to thrive.

How does the dark web work?

A hand on a keyboard in a dark room

This element of the internet is also part of the deep web, which is known as parts of the internet that aren’t indexed by search engines for many different reasons – ranging from supporting online banking mechanisms to protecting criminal activity. Considering this, these portions of the internet can only be accessed through using a direct URL or specific IP address.

Given the link between the two, the terms 'dark web' and 'deep web' are often used interchangeably, although they refer to distinct concepts. The deep web, broadly speaking, covers every non-indexed portion of the internet, including those areas that are entirely legal, such as government databases and academic research.

The dark web, however, uses an overlay network that is positioned above the internet’s logical foundations but is formed of deliberately hidden platforms that heavily utilise encryption to stay hidden, and are difficult to find without specialist software.

These networks are either small friend-to-friend takes on peer-to-peer networks or larger private networks operated by public organisations or privacy-motivated individuals, with the idea of running websites out of sight of the authorities and ISPs.

How do I access the dark web?

The Tor browser logo displayed on a smartphone

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

If you really want to access some of the murkier parts of the web, you'll need a specialist browser. The most common dark web-accessing software is Tor, which not only encrypts a user's traffic but also passes their machine's IP address through a layer of Tor nodes referred to as 'onion layers'.

These layers are proxy servers operated by thousands of volunteers across the globe and make identifying a user's IP address and tracking them across the dark web pretty much impossible.

Such routing means using Tor isn't exactly a speedy way to surf websites, and you'll need to know the site you want to go to rather than search for it, but it's secure and opens up a host of sites that would normally be hidden from view.

Alternative networks such as the 12P and Freenet also exist, but Tor is the most widely used.

What's on dark web sites?

Pretty much anything their operators want. As the dark web is out of sight from law enforcement and ISPs, a lot of illegal activity goes on there, from buying guns and drugs to facilitating terror plots or ordering assassinations.

The dark web is essentially the murky underbelly of the web, but it also provides a place where whistleblowers can more securely talk to journalists without being snooped on by oppressive regimes or corrupt organisations.

It can also be a font of hard-to-find information not posted on mainstream websites or can act as a way for legitimate sites to offer their services with an extra degree of privacy. Facebook, for example, offers a dark web portal to its social network.

Is the dark web a haven for cyber criminals?

Not entirely. It can and does serve a purpose when it comes to helping whistleblowers remain safe and anonymous online. And hidden IP addresses make it more difficult for malware to sneak off sites and infect computers, although there are plenty of services that mask and hide IP addresses on the normal web.

But the dark web does facilitate the activities of hackers and cyber crooks, can be rife with scammers and is full of illegal content that can be easily accessed.

So if you're going to browse its collection of sites, do so with caution if you wish to remain on the right side of the law. Surfing the dark web is certainly not something you should be doing at work or in a public place full of people happy to sneak a peek at your screen.

Carly Page

Carly Page is a freelance technology journalist, editor and copywriter specialising in cyber security, B2B, and consumer technology. She has more than a decade of experience in the industry and has written for a range of publications including Forbes, IT Pro, the Metro, TechRadar, TechCrunch, TES, and WIRED, as well as offering copywriting and consultancy services. 

Prior to entering the weird and wonderful world of freelance journalism, Carly served as editor of tech tabloid The INQUIRER from 2012 and 2019. She is also a graduate of the University of Lincoln, where she earned a degree in journalism.

You can check out Carly's ramblings (and her dog) on Twitter, or email her at hello@carlypagewrites.co.uk.