There’s never a shortage of scare stories about the internet. The shutting down of the notorious Silk Road black market in 2013 is a great example of how the deep web is often accompanied by alarmist headlines, but the truth is that the deep web isn’t always a cause for concern.
What Is the Deep Web?
The terms deep web and dark web are often used interchangeably, but they are not the same thing. Deep web simply refers to anything on the web that can’t be found using a search engine.
This means anything behind a paywall, anything that is password protected, or anything that is dynamically generated on the fly and doesn’t have a permanent URL — all of these things are said to comprise the deep web because they don’t exist at the surface of the web.
You actually access the deep web routinely, every day. The emails in your Gmail account, your online bank statements, your office intranet, direct messages in Twitter, photos you’ve uploaded to Facebook and marked as private. These are all the deep web.
It isn’t known how large the deep web is, but estimates from researchers suggest it’s likely to constitute the overwhelming majority of all online content.
The deep web might also be referred to as the invisible web or the hidden web, adding another layer of mystery to something that is actually quite mundane. The opposite of the deep web is the surface web, which is all the content you will can find through a Google search, for example.
But there’s more. The deep web is also where masses of raw data is stored, whether government resources, data for use by scientists, or in the form of databases that you can use for your own research. Not only that, but there’s an even deeper level to the deep web…
What Is the Dark Web?
The dark web is part of — but not the same as — the deep web. Not only can you not find it through a search engine, but you cannot access it through a regular web browser either. This is the nefarious underbelly of the internet that the media refers to.
The dark web is home to anonymously hosted websites that deal largely in illegal activities. In a study of over 5,000 sites on the dark web, Daniel Moore & Thomas Rid found that just over half of those active sites were dealing in illicit activities, including drugs, extremism, illegal pornography, and weapons.
However, since it’s an effective way of communicating online without being traced, the dark web is also used by dissidents or journalists in countries where the internet is heavily censored or by those who simply don’t want to be surveilled online.
In fact, the privacy-centric search engine Duck Duck Go runs a hidden service on the dark web.
Most sites on the dark web use the Tor encryption tool, but there are others services too, including I2P and Freenet. You need specialist software to access these services and the sites that use them. It isn’t illegal to browse the dark web in most countries, but using some of the dark web services can definitely be illegal.
Using the dark web is a little like stepping back in time to the early days of the internet. Sites are often rudimentary in style, and there are few search engines to help you find your way around.
The best way to find sites is through directories such as The Hidden Wiki, which maintains a list of many of them. It’s also extremely slow, an inevitable side-effect of the anonymizing process. Sites also go down frequently.
How to Access the Dark Web
The Tor Browser is the main application for accessing the dark web. Tor stands for The Onion Router — the onion metaphor indicates the layers of security that work to conceal a user’s location, and the browser enables you to access hidden web sites with the .onion domain suffix.
It can also be used to browse the surface web anonymously. Moore & Rid’s research suggests that the dark web accounts for only 3 to 6 percent of Tor traffic, with the vast majority of users choosing to use Tor for privacy reasons.
But given the slowness of Tor, it’s not especially efficient for general browsing. If you have privacy concerns you may be better served subscribing to a VPN service instead.
Getting started with the Tor Browser is easy. Download it from TorProject.org — it’s available for Windows, Mac, Linux, and Android — and install it. On running the app for the first time, you’ll be prompted to choose whether you can connect to Tor directly (most users) or if you need to set it up for a censored or proxied internet connection.
It takes several seconds establish a connection, and once it has, you’re ready to go. The Tor Browser functions just like any other web browser, only with added security settings. The default settings are fine for most users, but you can increase security if you wish to. This disables extra features and degrades the user experience in the process.
At this point we should offer a warning: The dark web is a grubby arena, and even reading the descriptions of many of the sites can take you into extremely uncomfortable territory. We would not recommend clicking many of the links even for the sake of curiosity.
The Deep Web: We Need It
Next time you hear a politician of commentator discussing the dangers of the deep web, it’s likely they aren’t talking about what they think they’re talking about. The deep web is a largely benign — and entirely necessary — part of the web. We all use it every day, even if we don’t realize it.
And even though the dark web can take us into some murky waters, the primary tool for accessing it, Tor, continues to have legitimate uses of its own. Most things, both online and offline, can be used for bad purposes, right? But that doesn’t make them bad in themselves. The same is true here.
Have you found any good resources on the deep web? Do you have any experience of the dark web? Tell us about it in the comments below.