In-depth

What is the dark web?

We shine a light on the often unsavoury corners of the World Wide Web

The web refers to websites and parts of the internet that aren't accessible through traditional search engines. Google might be the all-seeing eye of the normal web, but the dark web is hidden from its gaze, as well as that of Firefox, Microsoft's Edge and Apple's Safari browsers.

This essentially makes it a hidden layer of the web, ideal for people who want to surf in utmost privacy or carry out illicit dealings and dodgy activity without drawing the attention of the authorities or their ISP.

How does it work?

The dark web is part of the deep web, which is made up of parts of the web that aren't indexed by search engines for all manner of reasons, from supporting online banking to hiding criminal services, and it can only be accessed through the use of a direct URL or IP address.

Often the dark web and the deep web are used as interchangeable terms. But while the deep web is simply un-indexed parts of the web, which can include government databases, libraries of academic research and password protected services, the dark web is a lot... well, darker.

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It uses an overlay network that sits on top of the internet's logical foundations but is formed of networks of deliberately hidden sites that make heavy use of encryption and are pretty much impossible to find without specialist software.

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These networks are either small friend-to-friend takes on peer-to-peer networks or larger private networks operated by public organisations or privacy-motivated individuals, with the idea of running websites out of sight of the authorities and ISPs.

So how do I access the dark web?

If you really want to go and stick your nose into some of the murkier parts of the web, you'll need a specialist secure browser. The most common dark web-accessing software is the Onion Router, or Tor, which not only encrypts the user's traffic but also passes their machine's IP address through a layer of Tor nodes referred to as 'onion layers.

These layers are proxy servers operated by thousands of volunteers across the globe and make identifying a user's IP address and tracking them across the dark web pretty much impossible.

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Such routing means using Tor isn't exactly a speedy way to surf websites, and you'll need to know the site you want to go to rather than search for it, but it's secure and opens up a host of sites that would normally be hidden from view.

Alternative networks such as the 12P and Freenet also exist, but Tor is the most widely used.

What's on these sites?

Pretty much anything their operators want. As the dark web is out of sight from law enforcement, a lot of illegal activity goes on there, from buying guns and drugs, to facilitating terror plots or ordering assassinations.

The dark web is essentially the murky underbelly of the web, but it also provides a place where whistle-blowers can more securely talk to journalists without being snooped on by oppressive regimes or corrupt organisations.

It can also be a font of hard-to-find information not posted on mainstream websites or can act as a way for legitimate sites to offer their services with an extra degree of privacy. Facebook, for example, offers a dark web portal to its social network.

So it's not just a haven for cyber criminals?

Not entirely. It can and does serve a purpose when it comes to helping whistle-blowers remain safe and anonymous online. And hidden IP addresses make it more difficult for malware to sneak off sites and infect computers, although there are plenty of services that mask and hide IP addresses on the normal web.

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But the dark web does facilitate the activities of hackers and cyber crooks, can be rife with scammers, and full of illegal content that can be easily accessed at the click of a mouse.

So if you're going to browse its collection of sites, do so with caution if you wish to remain on the right side of the law. Surfing the dark web is certainly not something you should be doing at work or in a public place full of people happy to sneak a peek at your screen.

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