The top protrudes above the water and is visible, yet the real bulk of the iceberg is below that, unseen. The world wide web is similar, in which the regular sites we visit are the top of that iceberg. This includes common sites such as Wikipedia, Google and even the millions of blogs that come and go daily.
Beneath the water lurks the deep and dark, hidden from view for various reasons, the Dark Web. Less nefarious is the information that skims the surface of the Dark Web, in a zone called the Deep Web. That belongs to large corporates or governments and are never exposed to the public, such as medical records, government reports, financial records and such. These are kept away from search engines and behind powerful firewalls to protect them.
It’s truly in the depths of the of the dark web that things get shady – and oftentimes dangerous.
Why is the Dark Web hidden?
In the case of the deep web, since personal records, government documents and such are not meant for public view in the first place, those are understandably kept safe. However, they still are mostly connected to the Internet since much of that information forms an ecosystem for many surface web applications.
The Dark Web is slightly more complicated. This part of the world wide web is often run on networks of private servers, allowing communication only via specific means. This enables a high degree of anonymity and makes it difficult for authorities to shut down.
Unfortunately, this has led to Dark Web to become a place where many illegal activities take place.
What’s hidden in the Dark Web?
If you’ve ever heard of cybercrime, you’ll probably know that the cybercriminals of today are after more than just money. They take literally anything of value, which means credit card information, personal information and more. All of these things are commodities on the Dark Web, to be bought, sold or traded.
Aside from that, there are also business dealings that are illegal and can’t be conducted on the surface web. Almost anything can be bought on the Dark Web – for a price. The items available can include firearms, illegal drugs, illegal wildlife, or even the rental of a hitman!
Finally, there is the most depraved and undesirable of all – those who deal in the sickest and most perverse types of pornography, which is illegal is almost every part of the world.
How to Access Dark Web Websites
Before proceeding further, it is important that you understand that many things on the Dark Web are highly illegal. No matter what precautions you take, being able to stay anonymous is highly unlikely. Enter at your own risk!
1. Download and install the TOR browser
Despite its current usage as a browser that is often used to access parts of the Dark Web, TOR (aka. the dark web browser) was originally developed to help safeguard U.S. Intelligence online communication.
Today, it is one of the few ways to access .onion websites, which are located on the Dark Web.
TOR is a version of the popular Firefox web browser, modified to allow users to browse the web anonymously. The browser is designed to block or advise against user attempts to do things that might reveal their identity, such as resizing the dimensions of the browser window, for example.
While you’re waiting for TOR to download, take the time to stick a piece of dark tape over your webcam lens. You never know what might happen.
And also – check out the following introduction video by TOR.
2. Consider paying for a Virtual Private Network service
Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) are servers that you connect through to access the web. These servers help to mask your origin and may emulate locations from many other places in the world. Although TOR masks your identity, it does not hide your location.
For those who have not used a VPN service before, you might like to try out how it works before paying for one. Kaspersky has a free version that allows 200MB of data usage per month. If you don't mind paying, ExpressVPN and NordVPN exceed most other paid VPN services in my opinion.
3. DuckDuckGo is your friend
Navigating the Dark Web is slightly different. Remember the phase that often tossed about: ‘Google is your friend’? Well, Google doesn’t index sites on the Dark Web, so there, your best friend will be DuckDuckGo, which does a similar job.
4. Sign up for a secure email address
Now that you’re ready to go, it’s time to sign up for an untraceable email address. Gmail is out of the question, and you’ll need an email address to register for many .onion websites.
Note that these come with .onion domains as well, which you need to access using the TOR browser. Regular browsers like Chrome and Firefox will not work.
5. Dark web search engine
.onion is a domain exclusively used on the Dark Web. These are similar to regular domains, but cannot be accessed without a specialized browser like TOR. Here are a couple of relatively harmless .onion addresses that you can try out:
There are huge lists of .onion websites available and it only takes a little effort to find them. Again, bear in mind that you may bump into strange (and again, highly illegal) things on the Dark Web.
How Safe is it to Play in the Dark Web?
It sounds exotic and there is that thrill of the unknown and unexplored, but much like the deep blue sea, many dangers are hidden. As the average run of-the-mill Joe (or Jill, as the case may be), how safe is it to explore the dark web?
Although there are truly exotic things on the dark web that you would not normally see, along with even some of the more mundane albeit in anonymous form (for you), the dark web isn’t a place for you to blindly stumble about.
There are very bad things and people around that running into could result in serious consequences for you. This applies not only to bad guys, but there is also a very real chance of problems with law enforcement, depending on what you do.
In case you’re not convinced, here are some examples of what goes on in the dark web and the consequences;
Earlier this year, a couple in the US was charged for selling drugs under the dark web vendor handle of MH4Life on various trade sites. They were using the dark web to sell Fentanyl, a type of opioid which is frequently abused as a recreational drug as well as other illicit substances. The pair were arrested despite using cryptocurrency, virtual private networks and proxies as well as other elaborate distraction techniques.
Guns, Gold and Cash
More than 35 people in New York and California were arrested by a combined-agency task force for selling contraband on the dark web. Among items seized were more than 100 guns, $3.6 million in cash and 2,000 Bitcoins.
Kidnapping & Sex Trafficking
A Polish man was planning to sell a kidnapped British model on the dark web. When plans went awry, he was arrested in Italy where his victim claimed that he boasted of earning more than $17 million selling kidnapped women on the dark web.
Dark Web Security Guide
Since we’ve established that there are some truly terrifying things happening on the dark web, let’s look at some ways you can avoid them, if you really insist on peeking;
1- Make sure your Tor browser is up to date
Using the Tor browser is necessary to visit .onion sites, but every application has the occasional weakness. Always ensure that your Tor browser is kept up to date and try to stay abreast of vulnerability notices.
As I’ve mentioned, the use of a VPN is highly recommended – they help keep your identity safe and protect all data that’s being sent to and from your device. But make sure the VPN you’re using meets a few basic criteria.
For starters, you’ll want to choose one which is based out of a country without strict data retention laws, like NordVPN which is based in Panama; or Surfshark and ExpressVPN out of the British Virgin Islands.
4- Watch what you download
The logic is like the above, to avoid Virus and Malware, but please watch what you download on the dark web. Remember, malicious code can be embedded in almost any file type and you won’t know until it’s too late. If you must, use a virtual machine to do so, as this will isolate the file form the rest of your OS.
5- Change your mindset
Many people browse the web daily with abandon and even with increased cyber threats today, there is still the mindset that the web is a safe place to just stumble around. Browsing the dark web with this mindset could be fatal. Always be security conscious and aware. Trust no one.
There are a ton of other things you should take note of, but here’s one final tip – Be cautious of making friends on the dark web, it’s not Facebook.
Playing the tourist on the Dark Web
For those who may be a little faint of heart and yet have stuck with me until this point, here's the ‘safe’ tour.
This section will give you a couple of nice places to visit. Once you’re done with these, you can then burn your laptop and wash your hands with industrial-strength detergent before moving to Nome, Alaska.
1- The Hidden Wiki
This is a fantastic site to visit if you’re really new to the Dark Web. Much like the real Wikipedia, The Hidden Wiki has tons of information and links you can jump through to really get to know the Dark Web. It is one of the stalwarts among .onions and doubtless will remain so for many years to come.
Knowing that there are tons of things you can buy here, you’ll probably know you have to pay for it as well. This site is sort of like a digital wallet and allows you to transact in Bitcoins. The big difference though is that most digital wallet sites are not anonymous and many even have to comply with financial regulations as well. The Hidden Wallet is… well, hidden.
Now you have a way to sign up for things (anonymous email) and also pay for them (anonymous Bitcoin), wander over to Dream Market and browse the goods. This is one of the smaller .onion marketplaces and that’s probably why they are still in operation. The FBI has been conducting sweeps across the Dark Web to stamp out illegal trade and many famous marketplaces such as Silk Road have gone under.
It’s really strange that the world’s largest social media platform would have a .onion address, but there you are, Facebook it is. This part of Facebook was supposedly developed by them to cater to those who want a social network that’s anonymous. I’m not quite sure how ‘anonymous’ and ‘social’ work together, but the .onion Facebook claims not to keep logs of user activity.
Not to worry, the Dark Web has something for every paranoid being on earth! Private Hosting offers secured and anonymous web hosting. You can have a Linux-based PHP site of up to 100MB and unlimited bandwidth for only US$170 a year!
Bitcoins help you remain anonymous, so its great for Tor users. So why not access this site directly via a .onion link? What makes this site more unique than some others is that it has a HTTPS certificate for its .onion address!
You’ve heard of the term whistleblower? That when people report on the misdoings of others, usually a large corporate. So why not have a site for reporting on excessive policing or surveillance? With the help of Hermes Center for Transparency and Digital Human Rights, Netpoleaks allows anyone to stay anonymous and submit sensitive information.
Tor Shops is the website builder for dark web. Create your own .onion web store with Tor Shops and they even come with Bitcoin integration! From as low as $100 in setup fees, you can have your own web store on the dark web – just pay a fraction of your income from the store.
Ever wanted to hack the heck out of someone who pissed you off but have no idea how? Rent a hacker today. This apparent freelancer is selling serious hacking services – if you’re willing to pay a price. Prices start from around 250 Euros for small time hacking like email or Facebook accounts.
Ever wanted an iPhone of Macbook but insisted on paying in Bitcoin? There’s an option here for you as well, but model types and numbers are limited. All phones come factory unlocked and can work anywhere in the world.
Go back to the days of Internet Relay Chat (IRC) and you’ll meet The Campfire, it’s modern incarnation. This English-language site offers chatrooms and brands itself as the virtual gather-round-the-campfire-and-chat place.
It’s meant to be family-friendly, so no trolling for porn, sex, drugs or other weird .onion stuff here please!
If you’re looking for a no-frills email service provider that is exactly the opposite of Gmail, Bitmessage is there for you. It’s free and doesn’t bombard you with ads and does not track you with Google Analytics or the like.
You’ll get an email address to use and in fact, you can use this on the openweb as well. Most people of course come here with the comfort of Tor to make use of their hidden service. It has many features similar to a lot of other openweb mail service providers.
If you’re looking for a safe (?) way to trade on the Internet, have no fear, there are also options for you. Much like the way a lawyer can hold funds in escrow, so you ESCROW service. It even deals in Bitcoin so that everything is anonymous.
Trade to your heart’s content and all they ask is a modest 1.5% transaction fee. They will make sure you can inspect the shipped items before releasing your funds and offer third party dispute resolution in case the deal sours.
Everyone needs some space on the web sometimes and SecureDrop is exactly that. However, it’s a little more as week, since it was designed to allow whistle blowers a way to submit stuff to media companies anonymously.
Interestingly, this site is now owned and operated by Freedom of the Press Foundation. All data is encrypted and there are no third-party connections anywhere in the process. It’s really completely anonymous!
If you’ve tested some the stuff in this article out, by now you’ve probably realized that what I’ve given you is a highly sanitized version of what’s really available on the Dark Web. Seriously, some of the things are so illegal that I won’t even type them out here.
The Dark Web can be a place of real freedom. For example, you can openly discuss anything political, no matter how left or right wing, without fear of prosecution from your local authorities. Unfortunately, that’s intermixed with a lot of, well, not so nice things.
Enjoy the freedom but always remember, if you try to stay anonymous but still get caught, you WILL be charged for whatever illegal activities you have partaken in on the Dark Web. After all, they even caught Saddam Hussein, didn’t they?
About Timothy Shim
Timothy Shim is a writer, editor, and tech geek. Starting his career in the field of Information Technology, he rapidly found his way into print and has since worked with International, regional and domestic media titles including ComputerWorld, PC.com, Business Today, and The Asian Banker. His expertise lies in the field of technology from both consumer as well as enterprise points of view.