What’s the dark web?

The dark web isn’t just night mode, put it that way.

Heard of the dark web? Probably. It’s a nice, scary, edgy sounding little term, isn’t it? Ooo dark, ooo mysterious. You won’t find it on the surface web” – sites you find via Google (or Bing, or Ecosia, etc). It’s different, intriguing, feels a bit illegal and, at times, can be dangerous. Like urban exploring, or something. The dark web refers to a part of the internet that doesn’t register (or hasn’t been indexed, to be technical) on search engines.

There’s a fair few layers to the dark web”. They start with what we’d call the deep web”, which consists of web pages and sites that require a password or other security measures. This could be an academic site, a set of government records, or other archives, records and databases the general public can’t access.

Then you get into the dark web you were thinking about when you clicked on this article. People like to say it accounts for 96 per cent of the internet”, but really, we can’t be sure. It’s a little like the deep mysterious bits of the sea that we basically still know nothing about. There are also conspiracies about the various deepest, darkest parts of the web that very, very few people have ever accessed. They require something called quantum computing to get into, which is very complicated and not too relevant to understanding the dark web basics. What do you need to know? Glad you asked…

How do you access the dark web?

To be particular, the dark web isn’t a place as such. It’s an encrypted part of the internet, which means it hides your identity and location. Generally, you need to already know how to find certain websites (which you can do via forums, hidden wiki and other places) and download a software like Tor, along with a VPN such as ProtonVPN (others are available) to get going.

What’s Tor?

If the dark web has a Google, it’s Tor (short for The Onion Router). This allows you to navigate around the internet without being traced. It does this by hiding your IP address, which is an address that a device using the internet is given in order to be tracked among other functions.

Tor was actually developed for and by the United States Naval Research Laboratory, in order to protect American intelligence” (and let the US Navy’s intelligence officers use the internet without being traced). So you know, it’s legit spy and secret security stuff. If you’ve ever noticed, or wondered (or were about to wonder) why the dark web has URLs that end in .onion, now you know.

What can you do on the dark web?

You can view a lot of fucked up shit, discuss dubious things on forums, and go on websites which say you can buy illegal stuff, from pirated versions of games and software, to drugs and weapons. You can also, if you believe the websites are legit, order services like hitmen and people for human experiments”.

There are forums where people discuss illegal activity, too – like Reddit, but much dodgier. One big dark web discussion forum is called Dread. There’s a lot of pornography on there too (and yes, much of it is very illegal).

If you’re a curious person who wants to know about some of the things on the dark web, but are in fact too square and law-abiding (not a bad thing) to actually go on there, Darknetlive​.com is a news-site about it, which mainly reports on crime and trends. For example, apparently, Dogecoin is increasingly being linked to criminal activity. You can also look at the hidden wiki, which isn’t on the darkweb but is about the dark web, to get a sense of what might be lurking down there.

Surely there’s also a lot of scams?

There’s a lot of scams, yes. The finance of choice on the encrypted, anonymous dark web is (you guessed it) crypto. Initially it was just Bitcoin, but increasingly a cryptocurrency called Monero is being used, which makes it completely impossible to trace transactions (making it even more anonymous). Dogecoin gets some use on the dark web too.

Of course, sending Bitcoin through a website on which everyone is completely anonymous, to buy (in many cases) illegal things, is asking for a scam. For example, you might want to buy a gun (don’t do that), so you send over a few hundred quid to someone claiming to be selling a gun. But you can’t really check to see who they are, where they are, or even contact them, if they choose to not set that service up. So even if there is a gun, it might not arrive. And it’s also very possible there never was a gun in the first place and you’ve just sent someone a few hundred quid (or more!) that you’ll never get back. You’re hardly going to go to the police about it, are you?

Is going on the dark web illegal?

No, there’s no law around that prevents you from browsing the dark web. But equally, a lot of the activity on the dark web is genuinely illegal. Yeah, much of it is a scam, but there’s a lot of legit (highly bad, but real) operations too.

There used to be a very big black marketplace” called the Silk Road which hosted many of them. It was basically run by this one guy called Ross Ulbricht, who operated under the pseudonym Dread Pirate Roberts. He was eventually caught and accused of being the mastermind behind the site (which had made 9.5 million Bitcoin in revenue) by the FBI in 2013, while using his laptop at the Glen Park branch of the San Francisco Public Library. Hubris? Hiding in plain sight? Who knows. Anyway, he’s now in jail with a double life sentence. Since then, other sites have gained prominence but not really in the same way. Silk Road was the Amazon of illegal goods.

How come people don’t get caught buying stuff?

Crypto means that anyone will have a hard time tracing transactions (particularly on the dark web). But it’s not watertight. People probably do get caught if things are sent in the post and it is noticed (perhaps there’s a funky smell to those succulent plants” being delivered), or if the police get involved.

Does it work on mobile?

You can if you download Tor and a VPN on your mobile, and have a browse of Orbot and Orfox. However, whether you should is a different question – both in terms of the security and general safety. PCs and laptops are far more adept at protecting you. Also, these days you can find dark web-esque spots on your phone. Think encrypted apps like Telegram – all sorts of things are discussed and sold on there too. But don’t get any ideas…

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