Google only indexes a tiny fraction of the internet. By some estimates, the web contains 500 times more content than what Google returns in search results. The links that Google and other search engines return when you type in a query is known as the “surface web,” while all the other, non-searchable content is referred to as the “deep web” or “invisible web”.

The dark net, or dark web, constitutes a small fraction of the deep web. The dark web is made up of purposefully hidden websites and services. Both the owners and users of the dark web are anonymous. Although not everything on the dark net is illegal, it’s where you’ll find many of the internet’s black markets, hacker forums, malware vendors, and other illicit activity.

What is the deep web? 

The deep web is just like it sounds — below the surface and not completely dark.

What’s on the deep web?

The deep web holds the content that’s invisible to search engines. Here are a few examples of what’s on the deep web:

  • The content of your personal email accounts
  • The content of your social media accounts
  • The content of your online banking accounts
  • Data that companies store on their private databases
  • Content contained within scientific and academic databases
  • Medical records
  • Legal documents

A lot of what exists on the deep web consists of information that you probably wouldn’t want to turn up in a web search — like your checking account information — because it’s private and could be misused.

A rule of thumb: If you have to log in to one of your accounts by providing a user name, password, or some other type of authentication, the information you access is on the deep web.

That’s a good thing. The deep web can help protect your personal information and privacy.

Is the deep web safe?

The deep web is a pretty safe place, especially when you compare it with the dark web.

The dark web represents a sliver of the deep web. Dark web websites are often associated with illegal activity — but not all of them. More on that later.

Accessing content on the deep web is relatively safe. Think about it. You probably check your email and your credit card statements online without worry. But that doesn’t mean that accessing that personal information has no risks.

For instance, your accounts on the deep web contain a lot of your personal information that criminals might value. That’s one reason why it’s important to use strong, unique passwords on all your accounts. That might include a hard-to-guess combination of letters, numbers, and symbols.

Here’s another potential risk. You might be tempted to access your personal information on the deep web on an unprotected public Wi-Fi network. For instance, you might want to pay your bills while waiting to catch a flight at an airport.

But don’t do it on a public network. Instead,use a virtual private network — commonly known as a VPN — which can encrypt your data and help protect your online privacy.

Here’s one more risk. It’s also possible you could receive an email that appears to be from a reputable source. It might look like it’s from the IRS, for instance, an agency that keeps your personal information on the deep web. The email might ask you to supply your Social Security number to access your account or to click on a link to respond to a request for information.

Don’t do it. The IRS will never ask for your information through an email. That means someone is likely sending you an email to trick you into supplying valuable information. This is commonly referred to as “phishing.”

While the deep web is relatively safe, it’s always smart to practice safe internet habits.

What is the dark web?

The dark web is a different story — and probably what you might have assumed the deep web was if you read about it in a newspaper or saw a story on TV. But remember, the deep web and the dark web are two distinctly different things.

Although these two terms have been used interchangeably, one — the deep web — contains mostly harmless data and digitized records. The other — the dark web — has raised concern worldwide about criminal activity.

Regular browsers can’t access dark web websites. Instead, the dark web uses what’s called The Onion Router hidden service protocol. “Tor” servers — derived from “The Onion Router” — are undetectable from search engines and offer users complete anonymity while surfing the web. At the same time, dark web website publishers are also anonymous thanks to special encryptions provided by the protocol.

When you access the dark web, you’re not surfing the interconnected servers you regularly interact with. Instead, everything stays internal on the Tor network, which provides security and privacy to everyone equally.

Worth noting: Dark web website addresses end with .onion instead of the surface web’s .com, .org, or .gov, for example.

What’s on the dark web?

The dark web operates with a high degree of anonymity. It hosts harmless activities and content, as well as criminal ones.

For instance, one dark web website might provide complex riddles. Another might be a kind of book club that makes eBooks look more professional. Yet another might offer a forum for people who believe free speech is threatened.

But the dark web is better known for dark content — meaning, illegal and sometimes disturbing content. For instance, here’s a sample of illegal things you can find on the dark web.

  • Stolen information. When there’s been a data breach, there’s a chance the accessed information — from Social Security numbers to bank card numbers — will end up for sale on the dark web. You can also buy things like log-in credentials, hacked Netflix accounts, and more.
  • Illicit substances. Illegal drugs — and prescription drugs — are peddled on the dark web. You might also find toxic chemicals that can cause other types of damage.
  • Disturbing and dangerous items and services. It can get ugly fast. Things like gore, murderers-for-hire, human trafficking, child pornography, body parts, counterfeit goods, and guns for sale can be found on the dark web.

In short, you can buy just about anything you can imagine — including things you’d probably be better off not imagining.

What makes it possible to do business on the dark web? Financial transactions use Bitcoin, the cryptocurrency that helps assure buyers and sellers anonymity.

Is the dark web safe?

The dark web may be safe in some cases — think, legitimate content — but not in others.

Here are a few safety issues to consider.

  • Criminal element. There’s a chance you will find websites run by criminals. Beyond selling illegal goods and services, they may seek to exploit you and steal from you.
  • Breaking the law. You can be prosecuted for things you do on the dark web. It’s important to behave in an appropriate and legal manner.
  • Suspicious links. If you click on any links, you may be taken to material you might not want to see. It’s also possible that clicking a link or downloading a file could infect your device with malware.
  • Law enforcement. Law enforcement officials operate on the dark web to catch people engaged in criminal activity. Like others on the dark web, law enforcement can do their work under a cloak of anonymity.

If you decide to venture to the dark web, it’s smart to be selective about the websites you access.

Strategies To access the Dark Web safely

To access the vast majority of the dark web, you’ll need Tor. Tor is a network of volunteer relays through which the user’s internet connection is routed. The connection is encrypted and all the traffic bounces between relays located around the world, making the user anonymous.

Get Tor Browser

The easiest way to access Tor is through the Tor Browser. You can download and install tor browser for free. You might want to hide your Tor Browser download using a VPN and your existing browser’s private/incognito mode.

Based on Firefox, Tor Browser lets you surf both the clear web and dark web. All your traffic is automatically routed through the Tor Network. Make sure to download the Tor Browser only from the official website, as not to risk downloading malware, spyware, or some other virus to your device.

Officially, the Tor Browser is only available on Windows, Mac, Android and Linux. Many experts advise against using third-party mobile browsers that utilize the Tor Network. Sorry, iOS users.

I2P

I2P is an alternative anonymous network to Tor. Unlike Tor, however, it cannot be used to access the public internet. It can only be used to access hidden services specific to the I2P network. I2P cannot be used to access .onion sites because it is a completely separate network from Tor. Instead, I2P uses its own brand of hidden sites called “eepsites”.

So why would you use I2P instead of Tor? After all, it’s much less popular, can’t be used to access normal websites, and isn’t as easy to use, among other disadvantages. Both rely on a peer-to-peer routing structure combined with layered encryption to make browsing private and anonymous.

I2P does have a few advantages, though. It’s much faster and reliable than Tor for a number of technical reasons. The peer-to-peer routing structure is more advanced and it does not rely on a trusted directory to get route information. I2P uses one-way tunnels, so an eavesdropper can only capture outbound or inbound traffic, not both.

Setting up I2P requires more configuration on the user’s part than Tor. I2P must be downloaded and installed, after which configuration is done through the router console. Then individual applications must each be separately configured to work with I2P. On a web browser, you’ll need to configure your browser’s proxy settings to use the correct port.

Freenet

Like I2P, Freenet is a self-contained network within the network that can’t be used to access sites on the public web. It can only be used to access the content uploaded to the Freenet, which is a peer-to-peer distributed datastore. Unlike I2P and Tor, you don’t need a server to host content. Once you upload something, it stays there indefinitely even if you stop using Freenet, so long as it is popular.

Freenet allows users to connect in one of two modes: darknet and opennet. Darknet mode allows you to specify who your friends are on the network and only connect and share content with them. This allows groups of people to create closed anonymous networks made up solely of people they know and trust.

Alternatively, users can connect in opennet mode, which automatically assigns peers on the network. Unlike darknet mode, opennet uses a handful of centralized servers in addition to the decentralized peer-to-peer network.

Configuration is fairly straightforward. Just download, install, and run. When you open your default browser, Freenet will be ready and running through its web-based interface. Note you should use a separate browser than the one you normally use to help ensure anonymity.

Freenet is still an experiment designed to resist denial-of-service attacks and censorship.

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