What is the Deep Web?
If you’re reading about the deep web, the chances are you were brought here by the intriguing mysticism that all too often surrounds it. From stories in the news and media, to popular youtube videos all propogating the almost myth-like status of some dark underground web, only accessible to master criminals and elite hackers.
Intrigued? Who wouldn’t be. But, as is often the case the truth is not always quite as exciting. This article will be an attempt to try to separate some of the facts from the fiction and clear up some common misconceptions to enable you to come out with a much better understanding of the deep web.
What is Tor?
Tor is one of the most widely known and used networks on the ‘deep web’, their browser can be used to access special .onion domains which cannot be visited with a standard web browser.
Tor, stands for The Onion Router (believe it or not) which refers to the “layers” of the network, like an onion.
This is because Tor is what is known as an ‘overlay network’ as it utilises the same infastructure as the rest of the web however its users are kept anonymous and secure on the network by routing their traffic between nodes which are run by the community.
Unlike in a conventional connection to a website which simply sends the traffic straight to the server, the Tor network uses multiple stages and encrypts the traffic along the way, this makes your connection difficult to track and identify. Even if one of your connections is compromised, your security is still safe, as no single node knows all the information about the connection.
Deep web? Dark web? Darknet or clearnet?
It’s certainly a muddled confusion of terms.
The word ‘Deep Web‘ has classicly referred to sites that are not indexed by search engines. This can be for a variety of reasons such as not being linked to (so it cannot be found), being non-html content (and therefore not understood by web crawlers) or content that is hidden behind a password in order to access, Google won’t find any of these.
In more recent times the ‘Deep Web’ has come to refer sites that are require some special configuration to access, and usually hidden in some way, and involving forms of anonymity such as the Tor network.
Some people insist that the ‘Dark Web’ is the only technically correct term for such sites, however the two are often now used interchangeably (including on this website). Which often means the distinction isn’t too important as long as we understand the context in which it is being used.
Darknet usually refers to the services that runs on the Dark Web, such as websites that are accessed via the Tor browser. For this reason websites on Tor may often be referred to as Darknet sites.
Clearnet and the ‘Surface Web‘ are essentially the opposite of the above terms. They refer to all the websites that are easily accessible and indexed by search engines, such as microsoft.com
How big is the deep web?
You may have heard figures of the deep web making up for 99% of the content online. This is probably true as the content that is easily accessed by web crawlers is only a narrow portion of what is actually online. However this has often led to confusion (as highlighted above) that would suggest criminal content on the ‘dark web’ is the majority – which is obviously entirely ridiculous.
In fact, the amount of websites hosted on such darknets is actually pretty small. There are probably only a few hundred or thousand sites – nowhere near the millions of active domains on the surface web!
However, the rumour of a vast underground seems to have stuck, and you often see strange iceberg diagrams attempting to explain various supposed levels of the web. None of these make any actual sense, though they are quite entertaining. While they may have been intended as a joke they are still believed by many, even after being debunked for years I still regularly see forum posts where people attempt to get information on various nonsense terms.
Do only criminals use the dark web
Not at all, the dark web can be used for a variety of reasons, whether that be escaping regional political censorship, through free information and discussion, or giving journalists and whistleblowers freedom and protection (for example, many journalist establishments run sites on the dark web to allow safe and secure anonymous drop off points for information).
However that is not all, as browsers like Tor can also be used to access surface web content but simply through a more secure connection. For this reason many advocates reccomend using Tor for all daily browsing to protect your personal privacy as well as online security.
Why doesn’t the government shut down Tor
They created it, and continue to fund it to this day. No, seriously
The project was originally developed by the US Navy to ensure the security of intelligence communication. However if you want your intellligence operatives to be undetected you need other people to use it, otherwise whenever Tor traffic was detected it would be obvious it was US intelligence, rendering it useless.
For this reason the project was eventually released open-source where the project began in its current form under the EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation).
Anyway, even if the US government wanted to, it would be near-impossible. The network uses a highly decentralised structure with thousands of nodes run by individuals in various countries around the world, rendering any attempt to halt it practically futile.
What is on the Dark Web?
So what is there actually to see?
Browsing .onion addresses can be a slow experience, for a start it can be hard to find websites, though the hidden wiki (which contains links to various sites) is often a good place to start.
Most sites are actually pretty simplistic, and in some ways browsing is perhaps more akin to the early days of the web before mass commercialisation and indexing, networks like Tor certainly have more of a ‘wild west’ feel to them but are also very heavily community based. Most websites are made by passionate amateurs with community run moderation, a lot of active sites you’ll find have rules in place against gore and pornography in fact (contrary to what the media might tell you).
Admitedly there’s plenty of shady content out there such as illegal drugs markets, however these have an increasingly short lifespan as the authorities attempt to shut them down (though not before more appear).
There’s plenty of interesting things out there too such as documents, political discussions and open libraries. In this sense the dark web is just an unfiltered internet, imagine a web before corporations, that’s sort of the world of .onions.
How to access the Dark Web
So you want to start browsing? Awesome. Each network functions differently and as such requires different methods of connection. If you want to access Tor you can easily do so through the excellent Tor browser bundle, which allows you to download and browse the .onion addresses just like you’d normally browse the web in a regular looking browser.
If you’re just doing some casual browsing, you’ll be more than safe, most of the stories you hear are nothing but that, stories, there are no hackers or criminals immediately waiting to attack you the moment you go online.
That said, if you are really concerned about your security, I’d recommend not running Tor on Windows, as flaws have been found and explloited on the OS in the past. Depending on your level of Paranoia you may want to check out some of the specialist operating systems such as Tails or Whonix which have been created with dark web browsing in mind or check out my previous article on dark web security.