You might have heard of the Dark Web, without really understanding what it is or how it works.
Rather like the ocean, the World Wide Web we see every day is merely the surface of a far larger and more mysterious ecosystem.
Beneath its surface lies the Deep Web, where content not accessible through search engines is located.
This includes company intranets and online banking portals, product databases for ecommerce websites, draft webmail messages and unsaved amendments to websites.
Deep Web material isn’t designed to show up in search engines for all sorts of legitimate reasons.
But below the Deep Web lies its shadowy cousin – a place of impropriety and illicit information, also concealed from Google and Bing’s web search crawlers.
Known as the Dark Web, this murky netherworld requires specialist software to access and hosts the internet’s most disturbing secrets.
However, it’s also home to fascinating content that would never be found on surface websites.
Why does the Dark Web exist?
Any content hosted on the surface web can be viewed by almost anyone. It’s also generally hosted by reputable companies who are accountable for not offending or upsetting the general public.
Yet a great deal of content is generated every day that would shock companies with concerns about their reputation or share price.
The Dark Web is the ideal venue for such material.
Individuals who descend below the surface need to accept they can’t hold anyone accountable for stumbling across shocking – or illegal – data.
Dark Web content is hosted by private individuals and browsing habits go unrecorded.
Cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, Litecoin or Monero offer instant, untraceable payments for goods and services, so they’re ideal for anyone who wants to keep their secret shopping list away from prying eyes.
That’s why the Dark Web is widely associated with the sale and purchase of firearms, stolen merchandise, drugs from cannabis to crack cocaine and pornography too extreme for the surface web.
Why can’t I access the Dark Web through my everyday web browser?
As Governments and Internet Service Providers improve their ability to monitor our internet activity, web browsers like Chrome and Safari discreetly record our browsing habits.
This is not good for viewing content that might be illegal in a particular country, or where accessing such information may attract the attention of security services or ISPs.
As a result Dark Web content is accessed exclusively through Tor.
Tor was designed by the American military, who continue to part-fund it because of its benefits to people living under the yoke of anti-democratic leaders in foreign countries.
The anonymity it provides to dissidents and whistle-blowers comes from bouncing data packets around the world, to prevent their origin or destination being traceable by third parties.
Most Dark Web addresses end in a .onion suffix, because data is passed through numerous nodes. Each node peels away a layer of secrecy about its final destination, like onion layers.
Likewise, Tor is an acronym of The Onion Router.
So what’s out there?
The Dark Web is home to the internet’s most scurrilous and illicit content, from drug dealers to prostitution, and child pornography rings to hitmen.
It’s perhaps most famous for the Silk Road website – the Dark Web’s largest black market.
While around two thirds of Silk Road’s product listings comprised illicit drugs, it also sold items considered legal in most countries, including jewellery and cigarettes.
The site’s alleged founder and owner Ross Ulbricht was arrested in 2013 in San Francisco, charged with everything from computer hacking to conspiracy to traffic narcotics.
His trial was marred by corruption charges against two former federal agents responsible for his arrest, but Ulbricht was found guilty and is now in prison serving multiple life sentences.
Silk Road is no more though its legacy lives on in smaller Dark Web marketplaces that are proving more successful at avoiding the FBI’s spotlight.
Does this mean the Dark Web is illegal?
Not at all. Dark Web content can be viewed by anyone – providing it isn’t illegal, which it often is.
Installing the Tor browser isn’t a criminal offence, either. Nowadays, it’s not even considered suspicious, as growing numbers of people seek greater online privacy.
Some people use the Tor browser entirely for surface content (that’s everything starting with the www prefix).
After a series of high-profile data thefts during 2017, people are more cautious than before about distributing potentially sensitive information across the surface web.
However, delving into the Dark Web is dangerous, and occurs entirely at your own risk.