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Five secrets about the dark web you didn’t know

University of Liverpool's staff contact details surface on dark web

Someone typing on a keyboard

Since the FBI shut down online drug marketplace Silk Road in 2013, pretty much everybody knows about the dark web.

And pretty much everybody associates it with illegal activity of one sort or another, with users able to buy weapons, drugs and illegal pornography, and even hire killers on there.

But the dark web is much more than simply a place to engage in nefarious activities.

Wrapped in layers of encryption to ensure search engines cannot index its web pages (usually through The Onion Router (Tor)) the dark web offers a sanctuary of anonymity in a post-Snowden world, where the whistleblower’s revelations about government spying have made people more aware of what data they share online.

The government’s proposed Investigatory Powers Bill, which would compel ISPs to hold certain data about people’s web browsing histories, has also brought the topic of data privacy into the spotlight.

Latest news

05/04/2016: Contact details for staff including lecturers at the University of Liverpool are being touted on the dark web by criminals.

After spotting the cyber attack a few weeks ago, the university informed the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) and supported a police investigation into the hack.

However, the university pointed out that the data was already publically available, meaning it is not a data breach, despite the information being taken from a database.

A spokeswoman said: “We detected an automated cyber-attack on one of our departmental online booking systems, which resulted in publically available data - surname, email, and business telephone numbers - being released on the internet.

"We take the security of all university-related data very seriously and routinely test our systems to ensure that all data is protected effectively.  We supported the Regional Organised Crime Unit (TITAN) in their investigations into this issue and reported the case to the Information Commissioner’s Office.”

31/03/2016: Seven in 10 people believe the dark web should be shut down, according to a new study.

Respondents to Canadian think tank the Center for International Governance Innovation’s  (CIGI) survey made their minds up after being told that hidden websites can be a force for good as well as evil.

For instance, the services can help people living under oppressive regimes access online resources banned in their countries, but also allow child abusers to escape detection by making it hard for law enforcement to track them.

Nevertheless, 71 per cent of 24,000 respondents from 24 countries told CIGI that the dark web should be terminated.

Eric Jardine, a CIGI expert on the dark web, told Wired: “For your average Joe or Jane, the dark web is not perceived as a very useful technology, and in fact it’s seen as harmful. 

“The basic perception is that it’s not a good thing.”

The Tor Project responded to Wired’s article by stressing the dark web’s importance as a tool for freedom and privacy.

“Tor is part of the infrastructure of the Internet and provides people in horribly repressive countries with the ability to read and write freely,” spokeswoman Kate Krauss told the publication. “If you poll people about whether or not they support the right to free expression—some will say no. That doesn’t mean that free expression isn’t precious. Tor allows free expression.”

How the dark web works

Tor is the largest network serving the dark web, ahead of alternative providers I2P and Freenet, though all use similar methods of protecting their users’ identities and activities.

Tor Browser enables anonymous browsing by using a method known as onion routing. This process allows a user to access a website through a series of intermediary servers, which act as nodes in a circuit between the user’s computer and the website he or she is trying to access.

Each packet of information sent through these servers is wrapped in several layers of encryption, with each server peeling away one layer of encryption until the packet reaches an exit node, which reveals the packet and delivers it to its destination.

Is it totally safe?

In a word, no. While onion routing makes it much harder for third-parties to intercept a data packet, it is by no means impossible.

Agencies have found success unmasking dark web visitors by planting fake exit nodes that record traffic – ie exposed data packets – or tricking users into visiting public internet sites they control, thus revealing their real IP addresses.

However, according to King’s College London researchers Daniel Moore and Thomas Rid’s February 2016 study, The darkness online, Tor is largely secure, and due to the Tor project’s efforts to patch flaws, the architecture is constantly improving.

Secrets of the dark web

Most dark web use is innocuous

Despite the dark web’s reputation as an insalubrious den welcoming criminals of all stripes, most users simply use it to browse the normal internet – just anonymously. In fact, Moore and Rid’s paper finds that hidden services hosted on Tor (with a .onion domain) account for just three to six per cent of Tor’s traffic.

Islamic extremists don’t host sites on Tor

While the dark web is very popular with extremists as a way to browse the web, there was a “near-absence” of Islamic extremists on Tor hidden services, according to Moore and Rid. This is because Tor’s relative inaccessibility renders it pretty inadequate as a means of pushing out propaganda, while the network is not stable enough for efficient communication, their study suggests. However, an Islamic State propaganda site was launched as a Tor hidden service in November 2015, the paper claims. 

Cicada 3301

Cicada 3301 is an anonymous, enigmatic organisation that aims to recruit codebreakers through a series of intense and complex puzzles it leaves online, sometimes using Tor to do so.

In 2013, Cicada 3301’s puzzles led people into the dark web, directing solvers to a Tor hidden webpage at emiwp4muu2ktwknf.onion with the message “Web browsers are useless here”.

The website, accessible only through the Tor browser, was interactive, requiring solvers to type in numbers for them to be factorised, ‘count’ to have the site count upwards in prime numbers, ‘hello’ to return a message, and ‘quit’ to quit. Successful visitors unlocked a second .onion address, with the message ‘Patience is a virtue’.  Those who explored the source code found the message ‘Patience is a virtue.

Drugs and stolen credit cards are the most popular hidden services

An analysis of 5,205 websites hosted by Tor conducted by researchers Moore and Rid found that drugs, with 423 websites, proved to be the most popular destination within the dark web. This was closely followed by 327 sites selling money laundering services, stolen credit cards and bank account details. A total 140 extremist websites existed, and 122 illegal pornography sites were found.

The creators of Tor might shut down hidden sites

The existence of these illegal websites are exactly what has given the dark web its seedy, shady reputation. But, according to Moore and Rid’s paper, Tor’s founders consider such sites to be an ongoing threat to the dark web’s future.

When a Tor user asked one of its founders, Roger Dingledine, why Tor does not simply scrap hidden services back in December 2014, Dingledine allegedly replied: “We do think about that option periodically.”

Instead, the future of hidden services could be used simply to hide the locations of people’s servers. 

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