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What is the dark web? Here's everything to know before you access it

Also called the deep web, this encrypted area of the internet isn't indexed by search engines and requires specific preparation to access. Is it safe or even legal? Strap on your VPN and all will be revealed in this dark web guide.
Written by Charlie Osborne, Contributing Writer
Data infecting a finger print identity on a screen to illustrate hacking and cyber crime.

In a world of bulk data collection, surveillance, and personalized ad tracking, it's up to us to take control of our personal privacy.

Andrew Brookes/Getty Images

The internet opened the door to a realm of possibilities that permanently changed the business landscape and our personal lives. 

No longer restricted to dial-up, many of us now consider access to a stable high-speed internet connection a critical element of our daily lives. We pay our bills online, check our bank statements, communicate via email, find information, and maintain a presence on social media. 

Also: What's the best way to ensure your privacy with a web browser?

However, today's most popular search engines -- including Google, Bing, and DuckDuckGo -- only index a portion of the internet. 

The area of the internet we access daily is known as the clear or surface web. 

But beyond that surface are deep and dark sections of the web that take some preparation to access: We're talking about the dark web, an encrypted portion of the internet that is not indexed by search engines and requires specific configuration or authorization to access. 

Here's everything you need to know about this other internet, as well as how to access it.   

What is the difference between the clear, deep, and dark web?

You could consider the clear or surface web the "top" and visible layer of the internet, easily accessible using a browser such as Safari, Chrome, Edge, or Firefox.

The dark web -- aka, the deep web -- is the second layer of the internet, which is not indexed by search engines. Websites and pages in the deep web might include password-protected content, private forums, and personalized resources. 

Also: Best secure browsers to protect your privacy online

As search engine crawlers do not catalog these pages, you would need to know the exact link to access a website in this area of the internet. This could include government services to access your records, health care services, members-only areas, intranets, or corporate resources. 

The dark web, however, requires special software to access, as explained below.

Is the dark web only for criminals?

When the dark web is mentioned online, it is usually in tandem with criminal marketplaces and arrests made by law enforcement agencies. 

Drugs, weapons, and stolen IP and data are all hot businesses on the dark web, with terabytes of information on offer. Traders cash in on stolen credit card data dumps, initial access points to vulnerable systems, credentials, and intellectual property belonging to companies compromised during cyberattacks.

However, the dark web has far more uses for organizations and individuals than what a small subset of criminals do under its umbrella.

Also: The cheapest VPNs (that won't slow down your connection)

To access a dark web address, you must use a VPN and a suitable browser (it should be Tor). The aim is to reduce your online footprint as much as possible, anonymize your traffic, and disguise your location. 

There are many legitimate uses for dark web services and communication. For example, this can include tools hosted for combating censorship -- critical services for individuals in countries with stringent government surveillance and control, as well as privacy-enhancing anonymous email and whistleblower drop boxes.

Some media outlets also maintain an online presence via the dark web when their surface websites are blocked, and other websites do the same when they are banned at the ISP level by countries during periods of unrest. 

Also: How to use Tor browser (and why you should)

Yes, the dark web has an unsavory reputation. However, remaining anonymous can be invaluable to protesters, civil rights groups, journalists, lawyers, and other vulnerable groups. Illegal marketplaces are merely a small fraction of what's actually there.

How do I access the dark web?

If you need to access dark web resources, these are the steps you need to take.

First -- and this is strongly recommended -- you should install a Virtual Private Network (VPN). Also, you need to use a privacy-focused browser such as the Tor network to connect via nodes and proxy servers, which are more secure and aim to anonymize traffic requests. The Tor browser is able to access the special domain names, with the suffix .onion, used in the dark web.

1. Invest in a VPN

A VPN will mask your location and stop the online breadcrumbs that can lead back to you. Connections made while a VPN is active will also be encrypted, helping you stay protected from eavesdropping and man-in-the-middle attacks. You can usually select the location you want to appear to originate from and VPNs will use a collection of servers and relays to make tracing your IP difficult. 

Also: The best VPN deals: Protect your online privacy for less than $2 a month

VPNs are also used for accessing geo-locked content hosted by streaming services. The best VPN options are paid-for and subscription-based, as many free options will either throttle your speed or collect your data.

ZDNET tested the best VPNs available based on speed, number of servers, security features, price, and more. ExpressVPN is our pick for the best VPN overall, thanks to its fast and reliable connection and the wide range of platforms it works on. 

2. Download the Tor Browser

You will need to visit the Tor Project to download the Tor Browser, a browser that prevents online fingerprinting, circumvents website blocks, and stops trackers from building a profile based on your browsing habits. 

The Tor Browser uses several layers of encryption to strengthen your anonymity and has integrated the DuckDuckGo search engine, a system that makes a point of not saving or logging your search queries. You should make sure you check the settings, and if you want a more secure experience, go for the "safer" or "safest" options, which also disable potentially dangerous website functionality, such as rogue JavaScript.

The Tor network is operated by thousands of volunteers worldwide who maintain the proxy servers that protect your identity. You can download the Tor Browser for Windows, MacOS, Linux, and Android. 

If you want to access the Tor network on your iPhone or iPad, you can use the Onion Browser app. The mobile app uses DuckDuckGo as its default search engine and is supported by the Orbit framework to provide secure access to the Tor network.

Also: Google beefs up Chrome app with four new search features

A VPN and Tor should be used together and it is advisable to connect via a VPN to Tor, rather than vice versa, for the best protection possible. 

Once you've downloaded and installed the browser, hit connect. It will normally take a while to connect because Tor -- unlike other browsers -- will route your traffic through different nodes. You should also keep in mind that overall speeds will likely be impacted; for example, a page might take a few seconds longer to load than what you are used to.

tor browser
Screenshot by Charlie Osborne/ZDNET

3. Find the .onion address you want to access

To access a dark web resource, you will need to know its web address to the letter. These websites will also use .onion top-level domain names, and many of them will be very long, random combinations of letters and numbers. You won't be able to access .onion addresses using a standard search engine as they aren't indexed by crawlers.

Also: Were you caught up in the latest data breach? Here's how to find out

There are numerous directories that host .onion links and websites, but you should always exercise caution. Some will lead you to commercial sites that deal in everything from illicit drugs to fake passports, whereas others are non-commercial and include legal content, such as education and training workshops, forums, and personal blogs. 

DefCon, ProPublica, the CIA, various libraries, and open-source software providers also feature in this area of the internet. 

Is it legal to access the dark web?

You should remember that in most countries, accessing dark web resources is legal. However, conducting criminal activities via the dark web is illegal. 

If you are visiting websites on the dark/deep web and you are not adequately protected, you may become the subject of scrutiny or investigation -- even if there is no evidence linking you to illegal activities or purchases. 

Also: Google to expand dark web monitoring to all Gmail users in the US

What should I be wary of?

Unless you know exactly where to go to access a legal and legitimate website, you need to be aware of some of the risks you might be taking. These include:

Also: Scammers are using AI to impersonate your loved ones. Here's what to watch out for

  • Illegal marketplaces: If you stumble upon an underground marketplace, you will find all manner of items and services for sale, including drugs, weaponry, counterfeit documents, stolen information, and malware. Just because you're on the dark web and are using cryptocurrency for purchases doesn't mean you won't be tracked down.
  • Scams: On this Wild West of the web, if you take the chance and try to buy something illegal, you could be scammed. Sellers are often not who they seem to be. 
  • Visits to extreme content: It's not that likely, unless you intend to find it, but if you stumble upon extreme or abusive content, you might find yourself subject to an investigation by law enforcement. It should also be noted that downloading such content is often illegal.
  • Malware: Just as on the clear web, dark web sites and resources may be hiding malicious software designed to compromise your PC or mobile device. Malware can include information stealers, Trojans, ransomware, or exploit kits. You may also be exposed to phishing attempts.

Do I have to use a VPN?

Yes, you should. It is recommended to use a VPN to reduce tracking by governments, companies, and advertisers anyway, but if you are privacy-conscious and elect to switch from a typical browser to Tor, a respectable VPN is key. 

Also: Laptops will need to support growing AI and security priorities 

Countries such as China (and its famous "Great Firewall" blocks) may monitor citizens at the Internet Service Provider (ISP) level; if you are using Tor, the usage alone may appear in your records. A VPN can help disguise your use of Tor and your visits to dark web resources. 

Can a VPN and Tor make the dark web completely private and secure?

No. While strong encryption, VPNs, proxy servers, and hidden web addresses can all contribute to a more anonymized experience, there is no singular system available that is completely private and secure. 

Being hidden doesn't translate into being completely protected from the possibility of tracking, or, when it comes to illegal activities, of risk. However, it's up to us to take control of our personal privacy in a world of bulk data collection, surveillance, and personalized ad tracking. Therefore, at the very least, you should consider using a VPN.

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