What Is The Dark Web and Why Do People Use It?

Learn why people use the Dark Web, what's there, and how to access it


What is the Dark Web?

The Dark Web is a part of the internet that requires special software to access. You won't find pages on the Dark Web returned in your search engine results. In fact, there is a lot of misinformation floating around regarding what the Dark Web really is, and there are many questions about how it works and the safety of using the Dark Web. For example, many people ask:

  • Is the Dark Web a safe haven for hackers?
  • Does the FBI monitor what users are doing on the Dark Web?
  • Do you need special equipment or tools to visit the Dark Web?

Keep reading to learn more about what the Dark Web is, how to access the Dark Web, and why some people want to visit this somewhat mysterious destination.

What is the Dark Web, and How Do You Get There?

Before you can fully understand what the Dark Web is, you need to first understand some related terminology.

  • Surface Web: The Surface Web is the web that you know. It's where you are now. Where you can enter a search term into a common search engine, like Google or Bing, and return results that point you to the pages that should be of interest, based on your search term. It's what you see on the surface.
  • Deep Web: Here's where things get complicated. The Deep Web is made up of all manner of information that cannot be indexed (or searched) by common search engines. For example, this could be financial information that's stored on line, a database of scientific knowledge, or even medical or legal records that are stores online, but that block search engines from including that information in search results.
  • Dark Web: It's the Dark Web that gets more mysterious. You can access the Dark Web using a specialized browser. That browser will allow you to browse all of the information on the dark web — the pages also use a specialized protocol so that your normal web browser can't access them, so it does take a level of computer sophistication to find your way around the Dark Web. However, the average person probably has no desire to surf the Dark Web because it is a collection of mostly illegal information, products, and services.

    Anonymity on The Dark Web

    In order to access the Dark Web, it's necessary to download special browser clients (the most popular of which is Tor). These tools are going to do two things: they connect users to the subset of networks that make up the Dark Web, and they anonymize every step by encrypting where you are, where you're coming from, and what you’re doing. You will be anonymous, which is one of the most alluring aspects of the Dark Web.

    Note: Downloading Tor or other anonymizing browser clients does not imply that the user is out to do anything illegal; on the contrary, many people are finding that as they grow more concerned about privacy that these tools are essential

    Once you've downloaded and installed Tor, your browsing anonymity is secure, which is crucial for visiting any part of the Dark Web. However, this process does not guarantee that you’re completely untraceable. In fact, you often hear in the news about people being caught doing some pretty illegal stuff via the Dark Web. That's a caution that using the Dark Web might not be as anonymous as you think, especially if you are not a sophisticated user.

    So, using these tools makes you much more difficult to track, but not impossible. It's also important to recognize that while downloading these encryption tools and clients is definitely not illegal, you may become a person of interest by using them; it seems to be a pattern with people who are breaking the law here that they start on the Dark Web and then end up somewhere else, so it’s just part of tracing that process.

    Who Uses The Dark Web, and Why? 

    The Dark Web has somewhat of an unsavory reputation; if you’re a House of Cards fan you probably remember the storyline in Season 2 with the reporter looking to dig up dirt on the Vice President and contacting someone on the Dark Web to do it. 

    The Dark Web’s offer of anonymity is definitely a huge draw for people who are looking to procure drugs, weapons, and other illicit items, but it’s also gained notoriety as a safe haven of sorts for journalists and people who need to share information but can’t share it safely.

    One Popular Dark Web Destination: The Silk Road

    One example of places on the Dark Web that aren't entirely legal is a storefront many people visited called the Silk Road. The Silk Road was a large marketplace within the Dark Web, infamous for the buying and selling of illegal narcotics, but also offering a wide variety of other goods and information for sale. Users could only purchase goods there using Bitcoins; virtual currency that is hidden inside the anonymous networks that make up the Dark Web. This marketplace was shut down in 2013 and after an investigation, the founder Ross Ulbricht was sentenced to life in prison without parole. According to some sources, over one billion worth of goods were sold here before it was taken offline.

    So while visiting the Dark Web can definitely include illegal activities — for example, buying products or services on sites like the Silk Road, or digging up illegal images and sharing them — there are also people using the Dark Web who are legitimately in need of anonymity because their life is in danger or the information they are in possession of is too volatile to share publicly. Journalists have been known to use the Dark Web to contact sources anonymously or store sensitive documents.

    The bottom line: if you are on the Dark Web, you’re most likely there because you don’t want anyone to know what you’re doing or where you are, and you have taken very specific steps to make that a reality.