The Dark Web
The Dark Web, or the “Dark Net,” is a term that refers specifically to a collection of websites that reside within the “Deep Web”. The Deep Web is the area of the internet that is not indexed by conventional search engines such as Google and Internet Explorer – the “Surface Web”. Some analysts surmise that the Deep Web is up to 500 times larger than the Surface Web.
It is a common mistake for the two regions to be combined or confused with one another, though it is important to point out that this is not the case.
The Dark Web has been referred to as the Wild West of the Internet, with those who dare to access it enjoying almost complete and total anonymity. As long as users retain their anonymity through correct use of specialised encryption and browsing technology, there are no laws and no rules. Like the internet itself, the Dark Web is totally borderless.
Proponents of the Dark Web say that it’s not all bad, arguing it’s an outlet for people who are concerned about privacy and that it’s essential for dissidents and whistle-blowers in repressive countries and also a useful tool for journalists to protect their sources.
Accessing and Searching the Dark Web
The majority of Dark Web sites use the anonymity encryption software Tor (The Onion Router), though a smaller number also use a similar platform called I2P. Both of these software tools encrypt web traffic in layers and bounce it through randomly-chosen computers around the world, each of which removes a single layer of encryption before passing the data on to its next hop in the network. The onion metaphor indicates the layers of security that work to conceal a user’s location, and the browser enables you to access hidden web sites with the .onion domain suffix.
The core principle of Tor, "onion routing", was developed in the mid-1990s by the United States Naval Research Laboratory, with the express purpose of protecting US Military intelligence-based communications online. On their website, Tor details that “Tor is free software and an open network that helps you defend against traffic analysis, a form of network surveillance that threatens personal freedom and privacy, confidential business activities and relationships, and state security.”
Using Tor is not illegal, and is widely available to all who use the web and wish to be anonymous, but it is what people do with this veil of anonymity that could be called in to question and fall outside the rule of law.
What Resides within the Dark Web?
In recent years, the Dark Web has developed a reputation for being a safe haven for illicit activity and is known to anonymously host websites that deal largely in illegal activities. A study of over 5,000 sites on the Dark Web found that just over half of those active sites were dealing in illicit activities, including drugs, extremism, illegal pornography, and weapons. Hiring of assassins and hitmen is also associated with the Dark Web.
One of the more well-known black-market style websites associated with the Dark Web is the notorious Silk Road. This site was allegedly the mastermind of Ross Ulbricht, also known by his online name, the Dread Pirate Roberts (of Princess Bride fame) In 2015, Ulbricht was arrested in a very carefully planned raid by the FBI and convicted on charges including narcotics trafficking. He has since been sentenced to life imprisonment. The site has reportedly become active again through unknown administrators.
Another well-known cyberattack that utilised the Dark Web was the Ashley Madison breach in August 2015. Following the attack, the hacking group “Impact Team” posted approximately 9.7 gigabytes of data on Dark Web sites.
It is widely suspected that terrorist networks and organisations frequently use the Dark Web to communicate and store information. The reason for this is quite simple, with the scale of mass surveillance and data aggregation by agencies such as the NSA and GCHQ, any terrorist website on the Surface Web would be instantly taken down. The encrypted, decentralised and anonymous nature of the Dark Web offers perfect cover and aids in evading attribution and closure of terrorist sites.
In summary, the Dark Web is a private virtual space where people move around in complete anonymity to achieve both positive and nefarious ends.
A word of caution though; if you are curious and interested in visiting the Dark Web, please consider that in many cases it is a very grubby arena, and even carefully reading the descriptions of many of the sites can take you into extremely uncomfortable territory.
It is strongly recommended that you do not visit the Dark Web unless you are an experienced computer user and have a specific and strong reason to do so.