What is the Darkweb / Darknet? An introduction
There’s an Internet that hides just under the surface of the mainstream web most of us use every day. We hear about it in superhero and corporate espionage films, but most of us never think of accessing it. It’s known as the dark web. The name draws images of criminals, black market deals, and shady situations that no upstanding citizen would be involved in. It sounds like something only computer geniuses with intense hacking skill know the way into. How could an average person ever hope to truly understand such a dark and mysterious side of the internet called “the darkweb”?
So it turns out, it’s not that difficult! Access to the dark web requires no technical skill and no invite from a super hacker. It takes just a couple of minutes. Get an idea of the Darkweb by reading the following article.
To start, let’s get the lingo straight. There are three different types of the web.
- Surface Web – Where most of us surf every day. This is the internet that can be easily found and accessed via your favorite search engine.
- Deep Web – Specialty sites usually accessed by professionals and things not found in typical searches. Includes things like government databases and library catalogues
- Dark Web – A tiny portion of the deep web that is intentionally hidden from search engines. This area is only accessible via specific browsers, like the Tor network accessible only through the Tor browser.
What is the Darkweb?
It’s hard for most people to understand exactly what the darkweb is, especially since it often gets confused with the deep web. Experts have estimated that the deep web is exponentially larger than the surface web that most people can access through search engines. However, most of the deep web is pretty harmless. It primarily contains databases and members-only website unavailable to the general public.
That means most of the deep web is academic resources kept by colleges and universities. These institutions require alternative search engines, like library catalogues, to be accessed. Because this portion of the web is not indexed, it cannot be properly indexed, but it can be searched. Search engines for the deep web include TorSearch, Deep Web Technologies, and Freenet.
The dark web (or darkweb) is just a tiny part of the deep web. It’s “dark” not just because its contents are hidden from search engines, but also because it is the anonymous portion of the internet. When browsing the darknet, web publishers and web seekers alike are anonymous. With great time and expense, it is theoretically possible to track people in the dark net, but it is extremely difficult, requires a great amount of resources, and is rarely successful.
So in short:
The dark web is the World Wide Web content that exists on darknets; overlay networks which use the Internet but require specific software, configurations or authorization to access.
All Because of an Onion
Onion networks are what secure a person’s anonymity on the darknet. When you access the surface net, your computer connects directly to the server that hosts the website you visit. This is not the case in an onion network. In an onion network, the data bounces between intermediaries to establish an indirect link that is hard to track. Tor has an onion router that is both popular and user-friendly. It allows anonymous communication and is available for most operating systems
Who hangs out here anyway?
The onion network – super secret architecture meant to keep things hush hush. If you agree with the conspiracy theorists that this sounds like a military plot, you’re right. Specifically you can blame the US Navy. Because of the secrecy needed in their communications, government, military, and law enforcement personnel are the most frequent users of the darknet. Even if the data is well encrypted, or doesn’t need to be encrypted, the complex nature of the onion network means that people can’t view the identity or location of the individual they are interacting with. This can be vital for soldiers, agents working under cover, and politicians working on delicate negotiations. The darknet provides an extra layer of security.
Bloggers and journalists are the second most frequent users of the hidden internet. Online anonymity is extremely important in countries where censorship is rampant and political imprisonment is commonplace. It allows whistleblowers and informants to spread the word about injustices without fear of retribution. Activists and revolutionaries take to the darknet to organize rallies and demonstrations without alerting government officials to their location and the same anonymity can be helpful to citizens trying to gain access to being hidden by the national firewalls.
Sadly, all this positive information sharing has its downside. The darknet is also utilized by terrorist groups and criminals trying to avoid detection.
They key to the Darkweb
It’s surprisingly easy to access the darknet. TOR, which stands for The Onion Router, is the most popular access point, but tech-savvy users configure TOR in hundreds of different ways. For the less savvy, all it takes is installing a new browser that’s built on top of Firefox’s open-source code. From there it only takes two clicks to move from TOR’s site to the darknet.
If you’re not looking to do anything special, TOR’s browser can be used to simply surf the surface web with an added layer of protection. If you’re hyper-aware of big brother, the browser will keep you hidden from the government, but the browser will also give you access to websites that have been published on the TOR network. These sites are unavailable to anyone who isn’t using TOR.
Once you start surfing, you’ll notice that TOR websites have addresses that look different from other URLs. TOR websites are random strings of characters that end in .onion instead of .com or .org. Even if you have the address of a TOR site, you can’t access it without the browser, but with the browser you’ll find all sorts of wikis, directories, and free link dumps to help you navigate.
An alternative to TOR is The Freenet Project. The browser offers access to hidden sites, but also allows surfers to create private networks, keeping resources located on certain machines accessible only to people who have been added to a “friends list.” The I2P (Invisible Internet Project) network also allows privacy settings. The network is growing in popularity, sifting users from TOR with a range of updates that include file storage and sharing plug-ins, integrated secure email, and blogging and chat features.
An Added Layer of Protection
Regardless of which browser is their one of choice, many darknet surfers use a VPN, virtual private network, for an added layer of security? The content you’re viewing may be hidden when using an onion router, but surveillance can show that you are using a darknet browser. A 2014 Wired UK article called “Use Privacy Services? The NSA is Probably Tracking You” accused the NSA of tagging TOR users as extremists. There may be no proof that the NSA is using the exceptionally long tag list, but if you want to avoid ending up on that list at all, a VPN can prevent you from being seen surfing at all.
What You Find on the Darkweb
The vary nature of the darknet leaves it open to be a place of extreme diversity. You’ll quickly find political views that range from anarchist to extreme conservatism. Conspiracy-theories abound. Freedom of information and the idea that governments and corporations are trying to limit that freedom tend to both be a hot button topics. With the diversity comes an odd dynamic. Criminals and law enforcement advocates will be on the same website to discuss their common interest in security. It is rarely acknowledged that the two parties in a chat may be diametrically opposed should they meet outside the darknet.
Bitcoin Makes the Darkweb Go Round
Bitcoin and Blockchain technology are huge topics in the tech and business world. They advocate how bitcoin can be used to send funds for global business transactions. On the darknet, that means purchasing everything from exotic animals to hitmen, but there are as many police sting operations and scammers as there are legitimate criminal business dealers. The most commonly offered illegal items run the lines of drugs and fake identification. Bitcoin is the only accepted currency for these transactions because can be used completely anonymously.
The darknet helped develop the bitcoin in its early stages, and the bitcoin is now helping the darknet grow. Browsers like TOR are moving out of being primarily being considered nefarious. There are groups working on using cryptocurrency to build new privacy networks and censorship-resistant web services. As a way to keep these new networks running quickly and reliably without them having to be centralized and funded by a single company, digital currencies are being used to reward people for their involvement in providing darknet services.
Namecoin was the first foray into this arrangement. The digital currency can be used to create website addresses ending in .bit. These websites can be visited with the Free Speech Me browser plug-in. Because they aren’t hosted in a central location, so they can’t be censored by governments or internet service providers. Namecoin has great potential for personal identity management uses.
Safecoin is another project mixing the dark web with cryptocurrency. Using the SAFE Network, Safecoin farmers run part of the network on their computer and are given currency in exchange for bandwidth, processor power, and other resources they provide the network. Safecoin can then be exchanged for apps, cloud-storage, and web hosting. The network is being developed by the MaidSafe Company, but the company has sold off their ownership of the network.
Some Final Thoughts
The darknet isn’t nearly as difficult to crack as the movies make it seem, and it is helping promote free speech in suppressed areas, but be careful where you explore. Like most of the internet, there is as much bad content as good and potential to run into criminals and scammers.
Always make sure to keep safety in mind as you surf.