Is It Safe to Enter the Dark Web?

By Jack SteinLast Updated September 3, 2020
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Criminals aren't the only ones logging on to the dark web. Plenty of people visit this section of the internet every day to share information, store sensitive documents and communicate anonymously. Because it attracts its fair share of illegal activity, concerns about the safety of entering the dark web are common. However, if you have a good understanding of what it is, how to access it and how to conduct yourself while there, entering the dark web can offer a new measure of anonymity and safety to your browsing habits.

What Is the Dark Web?

The dark web is one of three layers that make up the internet. When you log into your computer or mobile device to search for information or read the news headlines, you're visiting the surface web — think anything you can find and access with a regular Google search. The deep web is the next layer, which involves content behind paywalls, online banking information and other pages that you can't access through a typical internet search. The dark web is the deepest layer — an untraceable network that can only be accessed using specific software, namely an open-source program called Tor or a network called the Invisible Internet Project.

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The United States government created onion routing, which is the technique Tor employs to conceal users' identities on the dark web, as a tool for Department of Defense members to exchange information while staying anonymous. The dark web uses multiple layers — hence the "onion" element of the name — of encryption to hide users' identities and keep their activities untraceable. That's why it's since become a hub of illegal activities. Many dark web users sell black market goods, engage in extremist activities, provide hacking services and perform other nefarious actions.

But it's not all bad. Some people use the dark web to avoid national firewalls like those found in China. Others use it for legitimate purposes like joining chess clubs or checking out the dark web's social network, BlackBook. Websites on the dark web exist only on the dark web, so accessing them requires you to use the Tor browser.

Deep Web vs. Dark Web

People often use the terms "deep web" and "dark web" interchangeably, but there's a big difference. The deep web is the area of the internet made up of non-indexed content that's not accessible by traditional search engines. It includes content that's been blocked by owners who want to prevent web crawlers from indexing it. It also includes content like confidential corporate web pages and medical records — things that are safely tucked behind a paywall or that require sign-in access. Other content found on the deep web includes the content on your social media pages, online banking information and personal emails.

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The dark web is made up of pages and content that aren't indexable, like deep web sites, but they're also typically associated with illegal activities — although not everything that goes on there is illegal. And while you can access deep web pages via your regular internet browser, you can't just hop into the dark web from Google. It's intentionally hidden from normal web browsers, whereas deep web content isn't; deep web content is accessible on regular browsers but benefits from the added layer of security that storage on the deep layer provides.

How to Access the Dark Web

The dark web is all about privacy. So, it shouldn't come as a surprise that you can't just Google your way in. To gain entry, people typically use Tor, a specific browser that connects you to the encrypted networks of the dark web using "overlay networks," which run separately from the surface web to hide personal details by rerouting direct connections to the dark web's sites. 

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You'll become anonymous when using Tor, but merely downloading the tools to access the dark web could send a red flag to law enforcement about you. Because of the criminal activity taking place on the dark web, many law enforcement agencies try to keep track of people gaining access to the dark web. It's also worth noting that many users find their dark web searches to be slow and unpredictable. Utilizing Tor and the dark web is about privacy, not efficiency.

Dark Web Safety 101

Before you consider entering the dark web, be sure you understand the risks. Some dark websites are set up by scammers and criminals. Even if you have legitimate reasons to enter, the sites you encounter might be on the dark web to steal from you, exploit you or get you to click on something that'll infect your computer or mobile device with malware. That's why staying safe on the dark web is so important.

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Make sure you have security software that you trust on your device. Likewise, it helps to keep Tor, its applications and your operating system up to date. Avoid using your email address or sharing information that could reveal your identity. Use extreme caution while surfing. Stick with URLs that you can trust, either because you've received personal recommendations or because you've been able to verify their legitimacy from several sources.

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