With most of us currently self-isolating and social-distancing to avoid spreading and catching the coronavirus, we’re likely to be spending more time online than usual. This makes it more important than ever to keep our web activities private and secure.
One option is to disguise what you’re doing by using a VPN, but another, more intriguing proposition is to connect to an alternative internet that better protects your identity and lets you access sites that are otherwise unavailable or censored. Often misleadingly called the ‘dark web’, the decentralised internet may sound legally dubious, but it’s actually a very effective way to browse and communicate anonymously online. However, you can’t just jump onto hidden networks through your standard browser.
In this feature, we lift the lid on the invisible web, reveal the tools you need to access it, suggest the best hidden sites to visit and explain how to stay completely safe and private.
Anonymous web FAQs
There are lots of misconceptions about the so-called dark web, which detract from its many benefits. Here we address the most frequently asked questions.
Why would you want to access the dark web?
It’s exciting to explore web content that the vast majority of people never get to see, and you’ll find things there that may not be available on the normal web. You can also have completely anonymous and unmoderated interactions with other people, without worrying that Google will index and display everything in its search results. People can be themselves – for good or bad.
What content can you find there?
The dark web has a reputation for being a ‘hive of scum and villainy’, and there is certainly some truth in that – some of its online marketplaces sell illegal products such as weapons, drugs, fake passports, counterfeit currency and so on. But you can buy perfectly legal things, too, usually paying with Bitcoin or another cryptocurrency, with the benefit that you don’t need to worry about a ‘middle man’, such as Amazon, taking a cut, trying to sell you additional products or tracking your movements and building up an advertising profile.
Reputable companies including the BBC, New York Times, DuckDuckGo, ProtonMail and Facebook offer access to their websites on the dark web through ‘.onion’ addresses (so called because onion services have multiple layers, like onions). These onion versions aren’t really any different to the standard sites, but they provide a channel for people who might not otherwise be able to access them – for example, if the country they are based in blocks or censors their content.
Is the dark web legal?
Yes. Think of accessing the dark web as akin to using BitTorrent. You can fire up the tool you need to access and explore content without breaking the law, but downloading a copyrighted film, TV show or some music is illegal – and that’s also true if you purchase something illicit from one of the dark web’s marketplaces.
Just visiting the hidden web won’t get you into trouble. It’s also important to point out that you’ll only see bad stuff on the dark web if you go looking for it, so you’re not going to stumble across anything illegal unless you choose to.
The team behind Tor, the most popular way to access the dark web, states categorically that “it is not a tool designed or intended to be used to break the law”, but to “enable anonymous communication and combat network surveillance that threatens personal freedom and privacy”.
Is it safe?
It’s mostly as safe as the standard web. Just take the same precautions as you usually would online, and don’t click any unknown links or download anything unless you’re sure it’s harmless.
Purchases can be more risky – if you buy from one of the marketplaces, you may end up receiving fake goods – or nothing at all. And if that happens, you won’t be able to complain to customer services, and you’ll lose your money.
Don’t be tempted to engage in illegal activity, either, because you could end up being arrested. Law-enforcement agencies have officers monitoring hidden sites and forums.
Who uses it?
Mostly people who live in oppressive regimes where the regular internet is restricted and access is monitored, but also anyone who just wants to browse the web away from the prying eyes of their ISP and other snoopers.
Recent research by cybersecurity website PreciseSecurity.com found that more than 30% of North Americans used the dark web regularly in 2019. Globally, users have cited their main reasons for accessing the dark web to be anonymity, privacy from internet companies and the ability to access content not available in their own country.
How do you access it?
The most common way is to use the Tor Browser, but you’ll need to know the exact web address of the sites you want to visit. These usually consist of a jumble of 16 (sometimes 32) characters and the domain ‘.onion’. You can also use Google or another, more private search engine to track down sites – search for ‘BBC .onion Tor’, for example, to find the address of the BBC’s dark-web site (bbcnewsv2vjtpsuy.onion). There are also a few dedicated search engines for finding hidden sites on the dark web, of which Ahmia (msydqstlz2kzerdg.onion) is the best-known – and least dubious!
Aside from Tor, there are other tools you can use to access the hidden web, which we’ll look at in the next section.
How to access the anonymous web
You can’t just hop on the dark web using Chrome, Firefox or another standard browser – it requires special tools for access. Here, we look at the main options
Available for Windows, Mac, Linux and Android, Tor Browser is based on the same engine as Mozilla Firefox, but with a privacy-focused twist, using the Tor network to protect your browsing and disguise your location. Your traffic gets transmitted and encrypted across Tor relays around the world, and you can request a new “circuit” for any site at any time. This means you can browse the regular web anonymously, but the software is also adept at handling ‘onion’ addresses with ease, just as if they were HTTPS addresses, which makes it the best – and certainly the simplest – gateway to the dark web.
Unlike a VPN, there’s no single entity behind Tor that you need to trust – the network is run by thousands of volunteers, so there’s no chance of your data being harvested and sold to third parties.
Tor also does a good job of hiding where you’re browsing from and preventing you from being tracked, although visiting an unsecured website (HTTP instead of HTTPS) could allow an exit node to spy on you. You can use Tor with a VPN for additional anonymity.
The biggest downside of using the Tor Browser is a drop in speed. Your traffic gets routed through a number of relays, which can slow down your browsing noticeably. It’s not a tool you should use for protecting your torrenting, either. In fact, the developers strongly advise against using it for that purpose, because it slows down the network even more.
The Invisible Internet Project is an anonymous, peer-to-peer decentralised network layer (written in Java). It is essentially an internet within the internet, and lets you send messages, browse and host websites, chat and perform other web activities in complete privacy.
I2P employs ‘garlic’ routing (as opposed to Tor’s ‘onion’ routing), which adds an extra level of privacy by encrypting multiple messages together, to make them harder to snoop on.
Incoming and outgoing messages in I2P use separate tunnels, which improves privacy. It’s also designed to anonymise traffic within the network, protecting communication and preventing your ISP from seeing what you’re up to.
I2P is faster and more secure for accessing hidden services than Tor, and you can use it to access normal websites anonymously. However, it’s more complicated to set up and use than other anonymous services and while there is a browser configuration page you can follow, the website doesn’t do a great job of explaining how to get started. Additionally, I2P relies on Java, which could be seen as a security risk.
ZeroNet is a peer-to-peer decentralised service that uses the BitTorrent network and Bitcoin cryptography to deliver “open, free and uncensorable” websites. Where Tor uses ‘.onion’ addresses, ZeroNet has ‘.bit’ domains. You can create your own websites and, just as with torrent files, the content remains online as long as there is at least one peer connected.
You need to install ZeroNet’s software to access it (available for Windows, macOS and Linux), and can then browse the available sites and services from the interface in your browser.
Because it uses the BitTorrent network, which isn’t very anonymous at all, ZeroNet offers less “out of the box” privacy than some other options. However, you can hide your IP address by using it in conjunction with the Tor Browser. There are instructions for how to do this in this FAQ.
There are a number of benefits to ZeroNet, primarily that it is very fast and it lets you access hidden sites even if you have no internet connection. Sites are updated in real time, so you don’t need to refresh your browser to get the latest content, and there are some excellent sites to browse. As mentioned above, however, ZeroNet isn’t anonymous by default, and it can be overwhelming when you first start using it because the list of available sites constantly refreshes (sort it by English to make it more manageable). Because ZeroNet relies on BitTorrent, you work as a peer to serve the sites you visit, which uses some of your bandwidth. You continue serving them, too, until you pause or remove them.
Freenet has been around for 20 years, so it predates other, similar services. It’s a peer-to-peer decentralised platform that lets you share files anonymously, chat on unmoderated forums and browse and publish so-called “free sites” that can only be accessed through Freenet.
If you’re wondering how anonymous you will be, the answer is “very”. As the site explains: “communications by Freenet nodes are encrypted and are routed through other nodes to make it extremely difficult to determine who is requesting the information and what its content is”. There’s also a ‘darknet’ mode, which is where you only connect to your friends, making your activities even harder to detect.
Freenet’s purpose has always been to provide a private, anonymous service, and that remains the case today. You can chat on forums without fear of censorship, and publish and share files anonymously.
On the down side, it’s a peer-to-peer service. When you use Freenet, you contribute to the network by providing both bandwidth and a chunk of space on your hard drive. Popular content from Freenet is kept in this “data store” (in an encrypted format) and updated regularly. You can choose how much space to devote to it during setup.
Would a VPN suit you better?
A VPN (virtual private network) is similar to Tor in that your traffic gets routed through its own servers, hiding sites you visit from your ISP and disguising your location. The main benefit of using a free VPN over Tor is simplicity – you can visit sites as you would normally, in your usual browser; and access geo-blocked content by choosing where to appear to be browsing from, whereas Tor assigns your location randomly.
On the downside, free VPNs come with data limitations – even the more generous, such as Windscribe, only give you 10GB of data a month – or there’s an ongoing cost of at least £3 a month if you use a paid-for service providing unlimited data and choice of servers. There are also privacy concerns, with reports of free services selling user data to third parties.
Both Tor and VPNs have their pros and cons, but combining the two gives you the strongest possible anonymity. However, you will definitely experience a noticeable hit to your browsing speeds if you do so
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