What Is the Dark Web and Who Uses It?

An online underworld offers anonymity to perform both legal and illegal tasks

In the dark web, web pages exist on networks that require special software for access. People use the dark web to remain anonymous or untraceable. You won't find dark web pages returned in your search engine results but, even if you never go there, you should know about the dark web and why some people want to visit this region of the online world.

Layers of the Web

Person in hoodie accessing the dark web
Lifewire / Chloe Giroux

To fully understand the dark web, it's helpful to know how it relates to other parts of the web.

  • Surface web: This is the web you know. It's where you are now. Here you can enter a term into a common search engine like Google or Bing and receive results that point you to pages that are likely of interest to you. The surface web is the top, visible layer of the web and is sometimes called the "clearnet."
  • Deep web: The deep web/invisible web is made up of information that cannot be indexed/searched by familiar search engines. Examples include financial information stored online, a database of scientific knowledge, or even medical or legal records stored on the internet using technology that blocks search engines from including them in search results. Though you can't find deep web sites through Google, anyone can search for them with invisible web search tools.
  • Dark web: The dark web consists of mostly illegal information, products, and services that don't hold interest for the average user. The dark web is a small part of the deep web but is even less accessible; you need a specialized browser to go there. That browser allows you to visit pages using a specialized protocol that your normal web browser doesn't use. Finding your way into and around the dark web takes a bit more computer knowledge than using the surface web or deep web.

Deep web and dark web are often conflated, which can be confusing when reading about these topics. If it helps, consider the various layers of the web as a body of water: anyone can access the surface with no problem but you need special tools (say, a snorkel) to go deeper where interesting things might live. To go deeper still requires a totally different setup (scuba gear or even a special vessel) because that level isn't accessible any other way.

Dark Web Uses

While some people access the dark web for criminal purposes, others have legal reasons to do their online business anonymously.

Criminal Use of the Dark Web

The dark web's offer of anonymity is a huge draw for those who want their illicit activities sealed away from the public eye. These people are there to procure pornography, drugs, weapons, stolen bank account details, stolen user accounts and passwords, hacking software, counterfeit money, and even murder contracts.

An entire marketplace, known as the Silk Road, was infamous for buying and selling illegal narcotics as well as a wide variety of illicit goods and information. These items could only be purchased using bitcoin, a virtual currency that functions independently of governmental monetary systems and can be transferred anonymously through dark web networks. The Silk Road was shut down in 2013. After an investigation, its founder, Ross Ulbricht, was sentenced to life in prison without parole. According to some sources, over $1 billion in goods and services were sold there before it was taken offline.

Using the dark web may not be quite as anonymous as you may hope, especially if you're not a sophisticated user. In fact, people are caught engaging in illegal activities on the dark web. Using these tools makes you much more difficult to track, but not impossible.

Noncriminal Use of the Dark Web

On the other hand, some people have legal reasons to want anonymity. Their lives may be in danger or the information they possess is sensitive or even volatile. Journalists have been known to use the dark web to contact sources anonymously or to store sensitive documents. The dark web has also been a safe haven of sorts for people who need to share information without being detected by an authoritarian regime.

Others may simply want a level of privacy not available on the surface web to perform normal tasks like participating in social media, playing games, reading news, sharing files, or sending emails.

Tools for Accessing the Dark Web

To use the dark web, you need to download a special browser client, the most popular of which is Tor. This software connects you to the subset of networks that make up the dark web and anonymizes every step by encrypting where you are, where you're coming from, and what you’re doing. You become anonymous, which is one of the most alluring aspects of the dark web.

Although downloading these encryption tools and clients isn't illegal, using them sends up red flags about you. People who end up breaking the law often start here, so law enforcement finds value in keeping track of these initial uses.

Once you've installed Tor, your browsing is made anonymous, which is crucial for visiting any part of the dark web. However, instead of just accessing regular websites that end in .com or .org, you can now visit special .onion URLs as well.

Facebook on the onion tor network

Onion sites look just like regular web pages; the only difference is how you access them. You can find places to visit on the dark web at dark web search engines like Torify.me.