In Depth

Dark web: what is it and how can you access it?

The internet’s underworld is known for criminal activity, but there’s more to it than the headlines claim

The dark web is one of the most mysterious corners of the internet, often appearing in headlines as a tool used by individuals for nefarious means.

In the past few weeks alone, a Southampton man was jailed for attempting to buy a Glock 19 semi-automatic gun on the dark web, the BBC reports. 

Meanwhile, ZDNet claims that “prolific” drug seller from Florida was charged and forced to forfeit $4m (£3.3m) worth of bitcoin after he was caught trading “powerful tranquillisers and painkillers” on the network. 

The dark web has gained a reputation for being a hotbed of criminal activity. But as mass data leaks and security breaches are becoming more common, the dark web is becoming a popular destination with those looking to surf the web anonymously. 

What is the dark web?

Simply put, the dark web is a part of the internet that cannot be accessed by traditional search engines and web browsers. 

The Sun describes the dark web as “a network of untraceable online activity and websites” that requires “specific software, configurations or have authorisation” to access it.

Tor, an anonymous web browser, is one of the more common methods of tapping into the internet’s underworld. An acronym for The Onion Router, Tor was developed by the US military in the mid-1990s and released into the public domain, the newspaper says.

The network was designed so that it would be “harder to distinguish the government’s messages between spies if thousands of other people were using the same system for lots of different things”.

The technology’s obscure name refers to onion routing, a process that uses multiple layers of encryption - which converts data into code that can only be read by the sender and authorised receiver -  to keep browsing activity anonymous.  

How can you access it?

Despite being one of the most secretive spaces in the virtual realm, accessing the dark web isn’t as difficult as you may think. 

According to Tech Advisor, “all the required tools” to access the dark web can be found  by simply downloading the Tor Browser Bundle from the service’s website. Once downloaded, users need to run the installation programme and click on the Tor Browser. 

“Depending on what you intend to do on the dark web, some users recommend placing tape over your laptop’s webcam to prevent prying eyes watching you,” the website notes. “A tinfoil hat is also an option.”

While accessing the dark web is relatively simple, finding websites to visit can be more of a challenge. 

Users will need to seek out web addresses to plug into Tor to make use of the secretive network, says TechRadar. These can be found on chat forums, such as Reddit, along with guides on how to make best use of the platform. 

“Many of the links are likely to land you in prison,” the site warns, “which is why we aren’t naming or linking to them.”

What can you find on it?

Just about anything, it seems. 

According to a study by the University of Portsmouth in 2014, websites hosting images of child sexual abuse are among “the most wanted type of content on Tor”, The Sun reports. This was followed by black markets offering goods such as drugs and weaponry. 

The technology’s anonymity means it’s also a breeding ground for extremism, hacking and fraud, the newspaper says. Users can also find illegally obtained personal data on the dark web and even hitmen.

Some sites, however, are unlikely to prompt a visit from the police.   

ProPublica, for instance, is a non-profit news site that aims to “expose abuses of power and betrayals of the public trust by government, business and other institutions”, Alphr reports. 

The site, the first online publication to be awarded a Pulitzer prize, uses Tor to allow those in countries with strict content censorship to anonymously read “its fearless investigative journalism”.

Another popular destination is DuckDuckGo, Tor’s default search engine, which allows users to browse the dark web “without being spied on”, adds Alphr. It’s a popular page for those unwilling to hand over their personal data to the likes of Google and Microsoft’s Bing.

So is it dangerous?

That depends on the nature of the websites you visit. For instance, sites used to distribute illegal pornography, weaponry and drugs are more likely to contain malware, which could be used to steal your personal data. 

Among the key forms of malware is SkyNet, which is designed to hijack computers and use their processing power to mine for bitcoin, notes Vice. Malware can also be used to access a dark web user’s financial accounts and remain undetected, while others can record keyboard inputs and even record video from a user’s webcam.  

It’s also believed that law enforcement officials infiltrate websites on the dark web to catch users taking part in illegal activity. 

In 2014, the FBI used malware to reveal the IP addresses – a unique code for web users containing their location data – of people using Tor to search for images of child sexual abuse, says Lifehacker.

Therefore, the best way to stay safe on the dark web is to either stick to legal sites – or steer clear of the technology altogether.

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