What is the Dark Web (and should I worry about it)?

What’s the dark web (and do I need to worry about it)?

Written by JVF Solutions

JVF Solutions is your premier source for all things online. From responsive websites to digital marketing services to online marketing strategy, we've got you covered.

October 4, 2023

You’ve probably heard about the dark web and maybe your bank, internet provider, or employer offers dark web scans or protection. To most of us, the dark web is a no man’s land filled with illegal stuff (if you’re a Star Wars fan, think of the lower levels of Coruscant). So while it’s a place many of us rightfully avoid, it’s still important to know what it’s about. And there are some legitimate uses for the dark web such as secure communication and file sharing. But before we get into too much detail, let’s take a look at the different layers of the internet.

The internet is often compared to an iceberg due to its layered nature and the fact that most of it is below the surface. The internet is divided into three layers:  the surface web, the deep web, and the dark web. Each layer has a distinct purpose and hosts different types of content. So it’s important to understand the differences and nuances between these layers to stay safe. To use our iceberg analogy, we’ve created the below infographic as an easy reference.

Infographic that shows the differences between the surface web, deep web, and dark web

The Surface Web:

The surface web is the most accessible and widely known layer of the internet. It’s made up of websites and pages that are indexed and easily searchable through conventional search engines like Google, Bing, and Yahoo! You can access these sites using a standard web browser such as Edge, Chrome, Safari, Firefox, and many others. In other words, you don’t need a special browser to access websites on the surface web. Again, websites on the surface web are designed to be publicly available, so you don’t need any special access to view these sites.

Characteristics of the Surface Web:

  • Easily accessible through common search engines (Edge, Chrome, Safari, Firefox, etc…).
  • Content is indexed and searchable.
  • Consists of websites meant for public consumption.
  • Some examples include news websites,  some social media platforms (more on this with the deep web), online shopping sites, business websites, and educational resources.

The surface web is the entry point for most users and a sizable chunk of internet activities take place here.

The Deep Web:

The deep web is very similar to the surface web in the sense that you use the same browser to access both. And some websites may have both a surface web portion as well as a deep web portion. The key difference is that you need special access to visit sites and pages in the deep web. A great example is the website of any major bank. The surface web portion of the site has information such as a branch locator, details about banking products, and even job listings. The deep web portion of the site is where you’d do your online banking – you need to log in to get to that portion. So you can use a search engine like Google to find branch hours, but it won’t (or shouldn’t) show your bank account balance.

Getting back to social media, some portions are in the surface web while others are in the deep web. LinkedIn is mostly in the deep web – you can see a portion of a person’s profile without logging in, but to see more info, you need to log in with a LinkedIn account. Facebook is similar in the sense that pages and certain posts are viewable without logging into the service. These days, many of us use the deep web more than the surface web (to create this article, requires accessing the admin panel which is in the deep web portion of this website).

Characteristics of the Deep Web:

  • Not indexed by conventional search engines.
  • Requires specific access methods like authentication or private networks.
  • Contains content behind paywalls, subscription-based services, or restricted access sites & services.
  • Includes databases, private networks, intranets, some social media sites, and academic repositories that require a subscription or account for access.

The deep web includes valuable and legitimate information, such as academic databases, medical records, legal documents, and financial/banking data, which require specialized access.

The Dark Web:

We’ve gotten to the good part. The dark web is the secret layer of the internet as it’s known for its anonymity and untraceable nature. Accessing the dark web requires specific software like the Tor browser.  Tor stands for “The Onion Router “as information on the dark web has multiple layers of encryption. The dark web uses onion routing, which was actually developed by the US Naval Research Laboratory. So, imagine each layer of security to be like a layer of an onion (or everlasting Gobstopper, if you prefer) where when you get through the first layer, there’s another below it.

The Tor browser allows users to access websites with .onion domains anonymously. These URLs are often a mishmash of letters and numbers (for example, the hidden wiki can be found at zqktlwiuavvvqqt4ybvgvi7tyo4hjl5xgfuvpdf6otjiycgwqbym2qad.onion). Yes, there are a lot of illegal things out on the dark web for sale from drugs, to weapons, to identity & personal information, and much more (we will not list them here, but you can use your imagination). Put away your Visa and Amex as cryptocurrency such as bitcoin is used for transactions on the dark web. There was a website known as Silk Road that was known as the Amazon of all things illegal. It was shut down and its creator, Ross Ulbricht, was arrested.

Now there are some legitimate reasons to use the dark web. If you need to communicate or send files anonymously or securely, then the dark web will offer the most protection. It’s also used by people who want to share anonymous tips with a news agency or even the CIA. Another common use is by people in areas where free speech is limited who want to share information or communicate with each other.

Characteristics:

  • Not indexed by standard search engines.
  • Accessed through special software that anonymizes users.
  • Hosts both legal and illegal content.
  • Includes marketplaces, forums, and sites involved in illicit activities.
  • Requires the TOR browser for access.
  • Websites use the .onion top-level dom

While the dark web contains legal and privacy-focused content, it’s most well-known for hosting illegal activities such as drug trafficking, weapons sales, cybercrime tools, and more. Fortunately, law enforcement agencies closely monitor the dark web for criminal activities.

Wrapping up:

It’s important to understand the three layers of the web and to be aware of which layer you’re in. As far as the dark web goes, proceed with caution if you decide to check it out. Your internet provider or a reputable IT company can perform a dark web scan for you if you have concerns about your information being shared there. As always, if you have any questions about any of the layers of the web, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us.

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