July 18th, 2022
What the dark web is and what you should know about it
For most of us, the internet is where we go to read the news, scroll through social media, and research everything from preschools to our next vacation. But there's another layer of the internet that's hidden—and where your identity is concealed. It's called the dark web, and if you've ever wondered what it is or how it works, you're in the right place.
Here at Asurion, we help you protect your tech, whether you want to secure your phone from hackers or learn what to do if you spill water on your laptop. Here's our guide to what the dark web is and what you need to know about it.
What is the dark web?
The dark web is a part of the internet that you can't find using a search engine like Google® or DuckDuckGo®. It requires a special browser to gain access, and once you're in, you can buy pretty much anything using cryptocurrency, all while concealing your location and online identity. The dark web has a reputation as a sinister place, and for good reason: It's created a black market where anyone can buy or sell drugs, weapons, social security numbers, counterfeit money, and malware, among other nefarious goods. From 2011 to 2013, for example, the now-defunct e-commerce marketplace Silk Road—often called the “Amazon of illegal drugs"—accounted for more than $1 billion in sales, according to Wired.
But the dark web isn't all bad. Human-rights groups, medical researchers, and victims of abuse have used the dark web for privacy, especially in countries that are hostile to the open internet and free speech.
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Who created the dark web?
In the mid-1990s, computer scientists at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory built a platform that allowed intelligence officers to share files anonymously. This mysterious communications channel was opened up to the public on purpose; by flooding it with information, there would be more cover for official documents and information. That platform is what we now know as the dark web.
What's the difference between the dark web, the deep web, and the surface web?
People often assume that the dark web and deep web are the same thing, but they aren't. Let's look at all three definitions.
- The surface (or open) web: This is what you know as the World Wide Web. It's the version of the internet that you access via Google, Bing®, or any other search engine, where information is cataloged and searchable, including your location.
- The deep web: This is the unindexed part of the internet, and it includes anything that can't be accessed and cataloged by search engines. Deep web content is either behind a paywall or requires login credentials, and it accounts for more than 95% of all websites. Here are some examples:
- Email accounts
- A company intranet
- Medical records
- Credit card accounts
- Membership websites
- A university's online library index
- The dark web: A small part within the deep web, the dark web can't be indexed by search engines. It's only accessible to users who have a specialized browser.
Is the dark web illegal?
The dark web is hidden, anonymous, and used for many illegal activities. But using it is legal. It's what you do once you're there that matters.
How do you access the dark web?
To access the dark web, you'll need a virtual private network (VPN) and an anonymous browser like The Onion Router (Tor). Tor sends your web requests to a network of servers that ensure your IP address can't be traced, burying your information under layers of online relays, much like an onion is covered in layers of skin. Tor also prevents third-party trackers and ads from following you and clears your browsing history and cookies.
Perhaps not surprisingly, many sites on the dark web end in .onion, but they are not easily searchable—you'll need the exact web address, which often is made up of random letters and numbers. A couple of ways to find sites are through online forums and word of mouth.
What are the risks of using the dark web?
Malicious software lurks across the dark web, so you are just as exposed to malware there as you are on the surface web. Police monitor the dark web, so just showing up and looking around could potentially land you on a watch list. There are a lot of scams there, too.
Say you want to buy something (legal) on the dark web. You find someone who is selling it and send them $500 in Bitcoin. The problem is, you have no way of knowing who the seller is, where they're located, or anything about their reputation. They could take your money and disappear. Or they could send you something else.
How to stay safe on the dark web
If you do decide to explore the dark web, you'll face many of the same risks found on the surface web. So don't use your real name, and create credentials that are totally separate from those you use every day—including usernames, emails, and passwords. If you're going to buy something, use a prepaid card without your name on it, not your credit or debit card. Here are some more tips:
- Use a strong VPN.
- Don't download files from the dark web, but if you must, use an antivirus program.
- Use a secondary user account on your computer, not your main admin account that holds all your information.
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