When most people think of the dark web, shady, illegal and malicious activity usually springs to mind. The dark web, sometimes referred to as the Darknet, forms part of the deep web, a sector of the internet that is not indexed by standard search engines like Google, and commonly believed to contain around 96% of all content on the World Wide Web. The idea behind the dark web is free and uncensored access to information. Navigating this space can be tricky and potentially dangerous for the inexperienced user, so certain precautionary steps should be taken before one decides to explore this ocean of information.


Dark Web Content


On the dark web, the informed user will be able to find things such as whistleblower platforms, leaked classified documents, databases, geometric algorithmic shortcuts, forward derivative supercomputation, the corporate experiment plans of companies like Tesla, hidden documentary insights into historical events, as well as the results of scientific research, including that conducted by Nazi scientists or propaganda theorists during World War 2 and it’s posterior use in modern society. Much of the material found in this space requires a certain level of expertise to decipher, but a lot of information is also accessible to the average user.  The dark web is technically unregulated, and anyone can upload whatever they wish, with others being able to access that information. Before accessing the dark web, the user should be savvy enough in cyber security to avoid the potential pitfalls associated with searching in a place where just about anything can be found. To this end, the user should beware of disturbing and illegal content. Human experiments and torture, graphic images from war zones and terrorist attacks, animal abuse, child pornography, sexual assault, drugs and illegal weapons, forums discussing cannibalism and suicide as well as death fights are but a few of the gruesome things you can find being streamed, uploaded or purchased on the dark web. It is also a place where terrorists congregate and hackers and assassins can be found offering their services.  Contrary to popular belief, browsing the dark web is not illegal in and of itself, unless you access sites with forbidden content or purchase contraband, stolen or forbidden products in the plethora of digital marketplaces that can be found on the dark web. It should be noted however that many apparently legal goods such as gift cards and electronic consumer goods can be advertised at steep discounts, implying that they may not have been acquired legally. Purchases are made in marketplaces such as Alpha Bay Market, where transactions are conducted using escrowed bitcoins.



Cyber Security and Accessing the Dark Web


The easiest way to access the dark web is by downloading and installing the open source TOR browser. TOR, which stands for “The Onion Router”, offers layered information encryption and routes traffic through individual server locations, generating different IP addresses for each process. Domain suffixes on the hidden service TOR network end in “.onion”. Despite the cryptic nature of the TOR browser, users should add an extra layer of protection by utilizing a Virtual Private Network. VPN’s are important not only for ensuring anonymity while you search, but also to prevent identity theft, as hackers are constantly scouring the dark web for potential victims and customers alike. To help avoid identity theft, users should never post personal information when registering on dark web marketplaces. Use should also be made of firewalls designed to identify and stop malware and DDOS attacks. Users should take care never to post personal information when registering on dark web marketplaces. Webcams should also be covered so that any potential hackers are unable to view your face or immediate surroundings. For extra protection, make sure that prior to entering the dark web, the “NoScript” and “Forbid Scripts Globally” extensions are enabled in the TOR browser. Also type “about config” in the address bar, and scroll down to “javascript_enabled”, changing the value from “true” to “false”. The Tails OS is a security-focused operating system that users should consider installing if they plan to spend a lot of time on the dark web. Outbound connections are all channeled through TOR, leaving no digital footprint.  Taking these steps will help to ensure privacy in the face of network surveillance, traffic analysis and cyber attacks.


Historical Background and Recent Events


With the rise of the internet starting in 1969 with the ARPANET project, a series of “dark nets” began to gradually appear, along with “data havens” such as the famous HavenCo in Sealand.  Originally developed by the US Naval Research Laboratory to hide the location and identity of American agents and sympathizers overseas, The Onion Router quickly became a vehicle for users of the dark web.  Silk Road, a popular dark web site for the sale and purchase of drugs, was taken down by the FBI  in 2013, with the site’s main administrator being in the process, though it only took Silk Road 2.0 around one month to appear. That same year, the FBI admitted to taking control of Freedom Hosting, the largest provider of anonymous hosting in the TOR network, creating malware designed to identify users. According to the Guardian, the National Security Agency targets TOR users by breaching vulnerabilities in other software on their computers. Former NSA analyst Edward Snowden using leaked documents as evidence, stated that the NSA “will never be able to de-anonymize all Tor users all the time,” but can manually “de-anonymize a very small fraction of Tor users.” Additionally, activist hackers like Anonymous, in Operation Darknet, have also targeted sites that host child pornography through DDOS attacks. These events show that, although tracking the dark web can be challenging for authorities, users conducting illegal activities on the dark web should be aware that they are at risk of eventually having their identities exposed and being arrested, regardless of any security precautions that are taken. Caution is advised when entering these murky waters.