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Exploring The Dark Net

A hidden Internet exists underneath the ‘surface web,’ hidden from the view of ordinary web users. It always aroused my curiosity, but I never really followed up to see whether I could access it. The dark web is intimidating. I assumed it was full of criminals and would have little to offer a law-abiding citizen such as myself. I also thought it would be difficult to access and that it would require some kind of advanced technical skill, or perhaps a special invitation from a shadowy figure on seedy bulletin boards. I decided to investigate these assumptions. One of the things that really struck me was how easy it is to access and start exploring the darknet—it requires no technical skills, no special invitation, and takes just a few minutes to get started.

What is the Dark Net?

Most people are confused about what exactly the darknet is. Firstly, it is sometimes confused with the deep web, a term that refers to all parts of the Internet which cannot be indexed by search engines and so can’t be found through Google, Bing, Yahoo, and so forth. Experts believe that the deep web is hundreds of times larger than the surface web (i.e., the Internet you get to via browsers and search engines).

In fact, most of the deep web contains nothing sinister whatsoever. It includes large databases, libraries, and members-only websites that are not available to the general public. Mostly, it is composed of academic resources maintained by universities. If you’ve ever used the computer catalog at a public library, you’ve scratched its surface. It uses alternative search engines for access though. Being unindexed, it cannot be comprehensively searched in its entirety, and many deep web index projects fail and disappear. Some of its search engines include Ahmia.fi, Deep Web Technologies, TorSearch, and Freenet.

The dark web (or dark net) is a small part of the deep web. Its contents are not accessible through search engines, but it’s something more: it is the anonymous Internet. Within the dark net, both web surfers and website publishers are entirely anonymous. Whilst large government agencies are theoretically able to track some people within this anonymous space, it is very difficult, requires a huge amount of resources, and isn’t always successful.

What Are the Surface, Deep, & Dark Webs?

The Surface Web – anything that can be found via a typical search engine (Google Chrome, Safari, etc.)

The Deep Web – things your typical search engine can’t find (government databases, libraries, etc.)

The Dark Web – a small portion of the deep web that is intentionally hidden and made inaccessible via search engines (the Tor network, only accessible via Tor browser)

What is the “Onion” Network?

Darknet anonymity is usually achieved using an onion network. Normally, when accessing the pedestrian Internet, your computer directly accesses the server hosting the website you are visiting. In an onion network, this direct link is broken, and the data is instead bounced around a number of intermediaries before reaching its destination. The communication registers on the network, but the transport medium is prevented from knowing who is doing the communication. Tor makes a popular onion router that is fairly user-friendly for anonymous communication and accessible to most operating systems.

Who Uses the Darknet?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the onion network architecture of the darknet was originally developed by the military—the US Navy to be precise. Military, government, and law enforcement organisations are still amongst the main users of the hidden Internet. This is because ordinary internet browsing can reveal your location, and even if the content of your communications is well-encrypted, people can still easily see who is talking to whom and potentially where they are located. For soldiers and agents in the field, politicians conducting secret negotiations, and in many other circumstances, this presents an unacceptable security risk.

The darknet is also popular amongst journalists and political bloggers, especially those living in countries where censorship and political imprisonment are commonplace. Online anonymity allows these people, as well as whistle blowers and information-leakers, to communicate with sources and publish information freely without fear of retribution. The same anonymity can also be used by news readers to access information on the surface web which is normally blocked by national firewalls, such as the ‘great firewall of China’ which restricts which websites Chinese Internet users are able to visit.

Activists and revolutionaries also use the darknet so that they can organise themselves without fear of giving away their position to the governments they oppose. Of course, this means that terrorists also use it for the same reasons, and so do the darknet’s most publicized users—criminals.

How do I access Darknet?

Accessing the hidden internet is surprisingly easy. The most popular way to do it is using a service called Tor (or TOR), which stands for The Onion Router. Although technically-savvy users can find a multitude of different ways to configure and use Tor, it can also be as simple as installing a new browser. Two clicks from the Tor website and you are done, and ready to access the darknet. The browser itself is built on top of the Firefox browser’s open-source code, so anybody who has ever used Firefox will find the Tor browser familiar and easy to use.

The Tor browser can be used to surf the surface web anonymously, giving the user added protection against everything from hackers to government spying to corporate data collection. It also lets you visit websites published anonymously on the Tor network, which are inaccessible to people not using Tor. This is one of the largest and most popular sections of the darknet.

Tor website addresses don’t look like ordinary URLs. They are composed of a random-looking strings of characters followed by .onion. Here is an example of a hidden website address: http://dppmfxaacucguzpc.onion/. That link will take you to a directory of darknet websites if you have Tor installed; if you don’t, then it is completely inaccessible to you. Using Tor, you can find directories, wikis, and free-for-all link dumps which will help you to find anything you are looking for.

Another onion network is The Freenet Project, which offers similar functionality but also allows for the creation of private networks, which means that resources located on a given machine can only be accessed by people who have been manually placed on a ‘friends list.’

Another privacy network called I2P (the Invisible Internet Project) is growing in popularity. Although Tor still has many users, there seems to be a shift towards I2P, which offers a range of improvements such as integrated secure email, file storage and file sharing plug-ins, and integrated social features such as blogging and chat.

Am I safe from prying eyes?

Yes, but many Tor users also like to add an extra layer of protection by connecting to Tor using a virtual private network, or VPN. Although no one can see what you are doing online when you use an onion router, surveillance entities can see that you are using Tor to do something. In 2014, Wired UK reported widespread substantiated speculation that the NSA was tagging Tor users as extremists or persons of interest (“Use privacy services? The NSA is probably tracking you”). Although that is likely a very long tag list and there is no concrete evidence about what is done with it, it is understandably something people want to avoid. Using a VPN to connect to Tor means that nobody will be able to see that you are using it, and is therefore seen as a good solution to this problem.

You can download the TOR browser here

Click here to view how to download & search with TOR

How to search the Deep Web click here

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