The Dark Web: A Definitive Guide

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The internet has opened up wonderful new possibilities in our world, making life easier on many levels. You can pay your bills, schedule your next family vacation, and order groceries with the click of a button. While the internet offers many positive benefits, it also has some negatives. Although not entirely used for illicit purposes, the dark web is one part of the internet that can be used by criminals for illegal purposes, like selling stolen personal information.

But just what is the dark web? Basically, it’s a part of the internet that isn’t indexed by search engines. As an average internet user, you won’t come across the dark web since you need a special browser to access it. It’s certainly not something you need to stress about in your day-to-day browsing, and you shouldn’t let it scare you off the internet. Unless you actively seek it out, you’ll likely never have any contact with the dark web in your lifetime.

A better understanding of what the dark web is and the possible threats it contains can help you protect yourself, though. This guide provides the essential information you need, explaining the different levels of the web and revealing how you can stay safe. With this knowledge, you can continue to browse online with confidence. Find out more below.

What is the dark web?

The “dark web” refers to websites that aren’t indexed by search engines like Google and Bing. This might seem strange since most people want their websites to be found through specific searches. Practices like search engine optimization (SEO) are specifically implemented to help websites perform well and rank higher in search engine results.

So, why would someone not want their website to be picked up by a search engine? The primary purpose is to preserve privacy and anonymity. The individuals and organizations on the dark web often engage in illegal activities and want to keep their identities hidden — something that is difficult to do with an indexed website.

It’s important to note that the dark web should not be confused with the deep web, which is a part of the internet individuals access regularly. Although the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, they actually refer to different things. Deep web content — which isn’t picked up by search engines, either — includes pages that typically require additional credentials to access. Your online banking accounts and email accounts, for instance, are examples of deep web content.

Different levels of the web

The internet is home to billions of websites — an estimated 1.7 billion to be exact, although that number changes every day as new sites are made and others are deleted. Your daily internet activity likely falls within the publicly available and readily accessible portion of the internet (otherwise known as the surface web). However, there are additional “levels” of the internet beyond that top level. Read on to learn more.

Surface web

The internet you use to search for more information is referred to as the surface web or open web. This is the readily visible part of the internet anyone can access with an internet connection and a normal web browser like Safari, Mozilla Firefox, or Google Chrome. Other terms for the surface web include the visible web, lightnet, or indexed web.

Examples of content you’ll find on the surface web include:

  • Open media websites and news sites like those affiliated with blogs, newspapers, magazines, and other publications. An example would be the home page of a newspaper like The New York Times or a media company like BuzzFeed.
  • Business websites for everything from major corporations to smaller local businesses. An example could be the website for a huge corporation like Bank of America or one for a smaller business like a local bakery.
  • Mainstream social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Twitter. Although you likely use these tools via an app, they all have dedicated websites.
  • E-commerce sites used for buying goods and services, like Amazon, Walmart, Target, apparel retailers, and beyond. Any company that sells products online can be considered an e-commerce site.

Basically, the sites you use daily — from your favorite news site to a local restaurant — are part of the surface web. What makes these websites part of the surface web is that they can be located via search queries and have recognizable endings like .com, .edu, .gov, or .org. You are able to find websites on the surface web because they are marked as “indexable,” meaning search engines can index and rank them. The sites are readily available on the search engine results pages (SERPs).

Interestingly, the surface web only makes up around 4% of the total internet, meaning the internet is a lot more than what you see on the surface. Think of it as an ocean — there’s the top layer of water you can see and then there’s the vast world beneath. The remainder of the internet is what’s below the surface.

Deep web

The deep web refers to any page on the internet that isn’t indexed by search engines as described above. The deep web is the first level beneath the “surface” of the visible web — and it’s significantly larger than the surface web, accounting for an estimated 96% to 99% of the entire internet.

It’s important to note that just because this type of content isn’t on the surface doesn’t mean it’s nefarious or has ill intent. A lot of the time, this content isn’t indexed because it includes pages that are meant to be hidden to protect consumer privacy, such as those that require login credentials.

Here are some examples of content on the deep web:

  • Fee-based content like news articles that are behind a paywall or membership-only content requiring login credentials are considered part of the deep web. For example, if you pay to access members-only content in a content creator’s fan club, you are using fee-based content.
  • Databases containing protected files that aren’t connected to other areas of the internet. These could be public or private files, like those from government entities or private educational institutions.
  • Intranets for educational institutions, corporate enterprises, and governments are used for exchanging and organizing internal information. Some of it is sensitive and not meant for public dissemination. Intranets usually require a login and are part of the deep web.
  • Secure storage platforms like Dropbox or Google Drive also require you to log in to upload and download files and photos. There are also proprietary data storage solutions used by companies that frequently handle sensitive data, such as law firms, financial institutions, and health care providers. An example might be a patient portal via a hospital or doctor’s office, where you can access your personal medical records.

Essentially, any webpage that requires a login is part of the deep web. That said, deep web content doesn’t necessarily have to fall into any of these categories. Any page that is non-indexable is technically also considered part of the deep web. It doesn’t have to require a login or contain sensitive data. Website creators and managers can mark pages as non-indexable if desired.

It’s worth noting that sometimes a single organization’s website will include elements of both the surface web and the deep web. Take a college or university website, for example. Most schools have a comprehensive website providing information about the school’s history, campus location, student body, available programs of study, extracurricular activities, and more.

However, many schools also have an intranet — sometimes linked from the main university page — that’s accessible only for students or staff. This is where students might sign up for classes and access their school email, for example. Since this is sensitive information and requires a unique login, it doesn’t need to be made publicly available via search engines.

In fact, it’s better in the interest of privacy that these pages aren’t readily visible. It helps to protect the user’s data. From this example, you can see that the “deep web” doesn’t have to be scary, illicit, or illegal. It serves a legitimate and useful purpose. You shouldn’t be afraid of the deep web. It’s further important to distinguish the deep web from the dark web — as the next section explains.

Dark web

As mentioned, the deep web and the dark web sometimes get confused. However, they are distinct. Technically, the dark web is a niche or subsection within the deep web. It consists of websites that aren’t indexable and can’t be readily found online via web search engines. However, the dark web is a carefully concealed portion of the deep web that people go out of their way to keep hidden.

What makes the dark web distinct from the broader deep web is the fact that dark web content can only be accessed via a special browser. The Tor network is often used to access the dark web.

Additionally, the dark web has a unique registry operator and uses security tools like encryption and firewalls, further making it inaccessible via traditional web browsers. Plus, the dark web relies on randomized network infrastructure, creating virtual traffic tunnels. All of these technical details serve to promote anonymity and protect dark web users’ privacy.

Is it illegal to browse the dark web?

The short answer is no, it’s not illegal to browse the dark web. In fact, there are instances where individuals can use it for good. Whistleblowers, for instance, can find the anonymity available through the dark web valuable when working with the FBI or another law enforcement organization.

That said, while it’s not illegal to browse the dark web, it’s also not completely void of criminal activity. Putting yourself in close proximity with illegal activities is rarely a good idea and could heighten your risk of being targeted by a criminal yourself. It’s often best to leave that part of the deep web alone.

There are also many technological threats on the dark web. Malicious software, also known as malware, is a critical concern and can affect unsuspecting users. Even simply browsing the dark web out of curiosity can expose you to such threats, like phishing malware or keyloggers. While an endpoint security program can identify such threats if they end up on your computer, it’s ideal to avoid them altogether.

Further, if you try to buy something on the dark web — even if it’s not illegal — there’s a chance you’ll be scammed. Dark web criminals use a variety of tricks to con people. For example, they may hold money in escrow but then shut down the e-commerce website and take off with the money. Due to the anonymous nature of the dark web, it’s very difficult for law enforcement to find such perpetrators.

How do criminals use the dark web?

Given its anonymous nature, the dark web clearly has an obvious appeal for cybercriminals. But just what do they use it for? The most obvious type of internet activity is the buying and selling of black market goods and services, from illegal drugs to illegal content. Cybercriminals may also run scams when selling such items, for example by taking a person’s money and not delivering the required product.

There are dark websites dedicated to the purchase and sale of illegal products or services (usually using untraceable cryptocurrencies like bitcoin) including:

  • Financial information like cloned credit cards with PIN, credit card details, online bank account logins, and more. People can then use these details to make legitimate purchases, negatively impacting your financial status and ruining your credit score in the process.
  • Account details for hacked accounts like email accounts, eBay accounts, social media accounts, streaming services, and more. For example, a person may buy a reputable eBay seller’s login details and then use their real account to make fake sales, pocketing the money and ruining the seller’s reputation in the process.
  • Personal data that can be used to steal someone’s identity, such as their name, address, Social Security number, and more. Identity theft is a serious problem that can negatively impact everything from your credit score to your private medical data.
  • Illegal services like people claiming to be able to fix credit scores for a fee. Many of these “services” are scams. They may also be law enforcement masquerading as criminals in an attempt to catch people who are up to no good.
  • Illegal goods like unregistered firearms and drugs. Law enforcement is increasingly cracking down on cybercriminals and the dark web.

Browsers like Tor, an open-source and free software, allow people to access dark websites where these goods are available, like a digital marketplace. These websites may look similar to any other surface or deep website you’d encounter. However, they differ in their domain suffix, ending in “.onion” instead of more obvious options like “.com” (Tor is actually short for The Onion Router, which is also where the term “onion routing” comes from — referring to anonymous communication on the dark web).

Onion sites often use scrambled names that make their URLs difficult to remember, minimizing the odds of being reported to authorities. It’s possible to search the dark web using specialized dark web search engines like Grams or link lists like The Hidden Wiki. However, these sources tend to be slow and unreliable, just like the dark web itself.

Some of this information can be extremely valuable on darknet forums. For example, while a Social Security number might go for $2, email credentials could sell for as much as $120,000. Hackers can make a lot of money and do so with less worry that they might get caught. Thanks to the Tor browser’s layers of encryption and IP scrambling, it’s difficult to track people down on this part of the web.

How to protect yourself online

Again, although the dark web isn’t inherently bad, you should still be proactive in preventing your personal information from falling into the wrong hands. Here are a few ways you can help keep you and your family safe online:

  • Protect your devices with passwords and antivirus software: One of the first lines of defense is to protect your devices. With passwords, ensure they’re unique and strong across accounts and keep them in one place, like a password manager. It’s also important to have antivirus software installed on your browsing devices to protect them from malware and other threats (you can even take this a step further by using a virtual private network or VPN).
  • Think before oversharing on social: Social media keeps us connected with our family and friends, but before you click “share,” make sure you’re not revealing any personal information like your home address or something else that could be compromising.
  • Sign up for a monitoring service: Whether it’s reviewing your credit report or an identity protection plan with 24/7 monitoring, additional trusted eyes on your accounts will help them stay protected.

Get a personalized protection plan today

The dark web might sound scary. The fact is, an everyday internet user like yourself likely won’t have any contact with this level of the internet. That said, it’s still important to take as many precautions as you can to keep your family and your technology safe.

McAfee provides everyday internet users with the tools they need to surf safely and confidently. Our award-winning antivirus software protects against threats like phishing, malware, and ransomware, and we also offer identity protection plans that come with a personalized Protection Score to check the health of your online information. Start browsing with confidence by using McAfee.

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