What is the Dark Web?

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The Deep Web - also known as the Invisible Web - is a little bit different than the Web we can access (also known as the "surface Web") via a search engine or direct URL. This unseen Web is so much larger than the Web we know - most experts estimate that it's at least 500 times larger than the measurable Web, and growing exponentially.

There are parts of the Deep Web that we can get to via inventive Web searches (see What is the Invisible Web? and The Ultimate Guide to the Invisible Web for more information on this).These sites are all publicly accessible, and search engines add these links to their indexes constantly. Some sites choose not to be included in a search engine's listing, but if you know their direct URL or IP address, you can visit them anyway. 

What is the Dark Web?

There are also parts of the Deep/Invisible Web that are only accessible via specialized software, and this is most commonly known as the Dark Web or "DarkNet". The Dark Web can best be described as the "seedy underbelly" of the Web; shady dealings and illegalities can be found here, but it's also becoming a haven for journalists and whistle blowers, such as Edward Snowden:

"According to security experts, Edward Snowden used the Tor network to send information about the surveillance program PRISM to both the Washington Post and The Guardian in June 2013.

"Without complicating our lives, it is possible to create a server on which files can be stored in encrypted format. The authentication could be implemented in various ways, depending on the level of security desired; for example, it is possible to allow access to the user only if he is in possession of a digital certificate on his machine. The files could all be encrypted and the certificate could be also used as a container to hold the keys to decrypt the information.

"If the clear web seems to have no more secret for intelligence agencies, the Deep Web is totally different from this." - How Edward Snowden Protected His Information and His Life

How do I get to the Dark Web?

In order to visit the Dark Web, users must install special software that anonymizes their network connections. The most popular is a dedicated browser called Tor:

"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."

Once you've downloaded and installed Tor, your browsing anonymity is secure, which is crucial for visiting any part of the Dark Web. Because of the anonymity of the browsing experience on the Dark Web - your tracks are completely covered - many people use it to engage in activities that are semi-legal or illegal; drugs, weapons, and pornography are common here. 

I've heard about something called the "Silk Road". What is that?

The Silk Road was a large marketplace within the Dark Web, mostly infamous for the buying and selling of illegal narcotics, but also offering a wide variety of other goods for sale. Users could only purchase goods here 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 is currently under investigation; according to several sources, there were over one billion worth of goods sold here before it was taken offline.

Is it safe to visit the Dark Web? 

That decision is left completely up to the reader. Using Tor (or other similar anonymizing services) certainly will hide your tracks and help you gain more privacy in your Web searches, which is something that is very important to many people. Your activity online can still be followed, but not as much detail can be ascertained. If you intend to visit the Dark Web purely for curiosity's sake, you most likely don't have anything to worry about; however, if more nefarious undertakings are your goal, be advised that this activity will most likely be tracked and watched by someone. More on this from Fast Company:

"While the Deep Web houses the retail of weapons, drugs, and illicit erotica, there are also useful tools for journalists, researchers, or thrill seekers. It's also worth noting that mere access through Tor is not illegal but can arouse suspicion with the law. Illegal transactions usually begin on the Deep Web but those transactions quite often head elsewhere for retail, private dialoguing, or in-person meetups; that's how most people get caught by law enforcement officials."

Basically, it's up to you whether you'd like to take this journey - and reader discretion is certainly advised. The Dark Web has become a haven for all sorts of different activities; not all of them strictly aboveboard. It's an important part of the Web that bears careful monitoring as privacy concerns grow in importance to society at large. 

Want more information on these fascinating subjects? You'll want to read What is the difference between the Invisible Web and the Dark Web? , or How to Access the Dark Web