What is the Dark Web
The surface web is what most of us use every day. It’s accessible through regular browsers like Chrome, Safari and Firefox. This very article is part of it: you can access it anywhere and at any time, as long as you have an internet connection and a browser.
The deep web is the part of the internet that houses very specific information. Most of us won’t have access to this information, and it isn’t accessible through search engines either. Mostly, these are pages and databases that are only meant for a certain group of people within an organization.
In order to get access, you need to know the exact web address (URL). In some cases, you need a password as well. Examples of pages on the deep web are some university library databases, reports and journals that only subscribers have access to, and the timeline of your private Facebook account.
Why and How did the Dark Web Come into Existence
The dark web was not created by criminals who wanted an anonymous way to communicate. It was actually developed by the US government. How did this happen?
Agents from several “three-letter agencies”, like the CIA, were stationed in many far-flung places. There was a true global network of American spies who collected information and intelligence for the US. During the 1990s, information became increasingly digitized and there was no longer a need for these spies to relay their reports through old-fashioned media like radios or letters. The internet and new cryptographic techniques replaced those old communication media.
As all of this information could suddenly be sent through the internet, the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory started a program that would eventually become Tor (The Onion Router) in 1995. With Tor, the agencies had an encrypted line of communications with their field agents.
Anonymity for all
Around 1997 the project was passed on to the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA), who in turn gave it over to several civil rights groups. Now, the question of course is, why would the government hand this technique and network over to civilian advocacy groups? There are some people who believe that Tor was never really given up by the US government.
Another explanation is that they had to open up the anonymous network because every US agent had to be able to use it from anywhere across the world at any time. That made the network vulnerable to infiltration, which is why other people could start using it.
Moreover, if only U.S. intelligence agents would be using this network, then obviously any communication taken from this network would be highly valuable. Therefore, it would be better to open the network up to many other people, so that the intelligence communications would be awash in a sea of non-government communications. Like this, everybody would remain anonymous, and U.S. agents could use the network to relay their reports.
Why Don’t they just Shut Down the Dark Web
While the Tor network became available to anyone with an internet connection, more and more servers were being set up across the globe. The network therefore became far more decentralized. With each new connection in a different country, the U.S. jurisdiction over the internet became smaller. The power of a network resides in the fact that it cannot be turned off from just one location. If you pull the plug from the American side, the rest of the network does not cease to exist.
Apart from the inability of any country to completely shut down the network, the U.S. also benefit from having this network around — even if it also hosts illegal activities. It is still being used as a channel for covert communications by intelligence agencies. It is also one of the best tools that political activists have to stand up, leak, whistle-blow etc. against authoritarian states that the U.S. are very critical of.
Whether it is Venezuela or Iran, the U.S. are glad that people have a tool like Tor around to make life harder for those regimes. Of course, this also applies to the US, as was made clear by the emergence of Wikileaks and the whistleblowing activities of Snowden.
A double-edged sword
Because of the above-mentioned reasons, the dark web can be both beneficial and dangerous at the same time. Because it is helpful in multiple ways, the US government does not want to shut it down. Even if they did, they would have to try to shut it down in its entirety and get the compliance and cooperation of dozens of countries that have no interest in cooperating with the US.
What national authorities are able to do is cooperate to close down certain sites and hold their owners, administrators, users etc. accountable. Often when a dark web site does get closed down, multiple agencies have worked together to make that happen. For example, if the US department of Justice wants to shut down a Dutch marijuana-selling dark market, that would require the cooperation of the Dutch police, Europol, and possibly a number of other agencies and authorities. The following image showcases the number of agencies involved with seizing 1 dark market.
What is Tor
Tor (the onion router) is free open-source software that functions as a browser. Unlike browsers such as Chrome, Firefox, and Edge, Tor aims to keep its users anonymous. In order to make this happen, the Tor browser channels your internet activities through several IP-addresses/hosts that represent the layers of an onion. Your searches travel through this network of nodes. At every node, part of the encryption is peeled off. Eventually your information ends up at the website of your choice. This process of onion routing aims to keep the user anonymous.
The Tor browser is used to access the dark web. As mentioned, this is the easiest way to reach URLs with the suffix .onion. This suffix refers to the onion routing that Tor uses to secure anonymous browsing: encryption comes in layers, like the layers of an onion. Websites can decide to use an .onion domain because they do not want everyone to know they exist. This could be because they simply want to be exclusive, or because they contain content that’s questionable or illegal.
In short, using the Tor browser (or a similar anonymous browser) is necessary to access the dark web and also helps to make you more anonymous on the internet.
What Happens on the Dark Web
It’s very difficult to figure out exactly what happens on the dark web. As mentioned earlier, you need to know specific URLs in order to get to the right pages. It’s quite hard to stumble onto the right website when all the web addresses are random combinations of digits and letters.
Moreover, there are a lot of stories going around about the craziest services and pages hiding on the dark web. Ordering hitmen is apparently only one of the available examples. Although we cannot be certain that some of this behavior doesn’t take place on the dark web, the majority of rumors surrounding the dark web such as online hitmen or red rooms is pure fiction.
For example, one hitmen-for-hire website called Besa Mafia definitely existed, except that it never carried out any hits. It was just stealing money from gullible dark web users who wanted somebody dead. Still, many other questionable things, such as drugs and weapons, are available on the dark web.
Due to the existence of so many nefarious websites, the dark web has gotten a very bad reputation. It is often believed that anything and everything that happens on the dark web must be illegal. This is not true. The dark web is also a safe haven for journalists, whistleblowers, and citizens living under dictatorial regimes.
Furthermore, some of the more shady websites can also have positive side-effects. Our aim is to take a nuanced approach, highlighting both positive and negative consequences. We only want our readers to be safe if they decide for themselves to venture into the dark recesses of the web.
We can’t make any definite claims, as the dark web is constantly changing and remains largely hidden to many. However, in general, these are some of the things you may find on the dark web:
- Black markets
- Fraudulent or otherwise dangerous websites
- Email services, fora and other forms of anonymous online communication
- Bitcoin and cryptocurrency websites