There's plenty to see on the web, everything from the scores of your favourite sports teams to weather reports reviews of the new French restaurant in town to updates from your friends and family on social media. However there's another world on the web that's mostly hidden from view and requires special browsers to access — the dark web.
If the name sounds sinister, it's because the dark web encourages activity that people would rather hide from view. The dark web is where people can buy illegal drugs and firearms. It's also dotted with sites that specialize in illicit pornography, including child pornography. It’s a part of the internet that you can’t find with traditional search engines such as Google.
Because it is hidden, getting to the dark web isn't easy. Most visitors first download Tor, or The Onion Router, a browser that allows users to search the internet anonymously. You can download this browser at torproject.org.
Finding specific sites on the dark web isn't easy, though. You have to know what you want. You can visit thehiddenwiki.org to see a list of dark web sites but be careful. There are plenty of illegal sites listed.
The dark web was created for people interested in surfing the internet anonymously, and the sites within the dark web often cater to illegal activity.
But are you breaking the law just by visiting the dark web?
The dark web itself: Illegal or not?
The simple answer? The dark web itself is not illegal*. What’s illegal is some of the activity that occurs on the dark web. There are sites that sell illegal drugs and others that allow you buy firearms illegally. There are also sites that distribute child pornography.
The dark web itself though is not illegal. It offers plenty of sites that while often objectionable violate no laws. You can find forums, blogs, and social media sites that cover a host of legal topics such as politics and sports.
Is it illegal to access and browse the dark web?
Using Tor to access and browse the dark web is not illegal*. You will however have to be cautious. Surfing the dark web might not be illegal, but visiting certain sites, or making certain purchases, through the dark web is illegal.
You won’t be committing criminal acts however if you use the dark web to participate in forums or to read hidden blog posts anonymously unless your behaviour includes making threats, hate speech, or inciting or encouraging criminal behaviour.
The key here is to use common sense. If something is illegal outside of the dark web, it will be illegal in this hidden section of the internet, too.
How much illegal activity is there on the dark web?
Looking for something illegal on the dark web? You’ll find plenty of options. In 2015, Daniel Moore and Thomas Rid, researchers at King's College in London, studied 2,723 sites on the dark web during a five-week period. The researchers said 57 percent of those sites hosted illicit material.
Of course, 2015 is a long time ago and the proportion of illegal activity on the dark web continued to grow. A 2019 study by the University of Surrey found the number of harmful dark web listings has increased 20 percent since 2016 accounting for 60 percent of all listings.
If you search the dark web you’ll find online marketplaces that sell everything from Netflix passwords to stolen credit card account numbers. You’ll find other sites where you can buy illegal software, prepaid debit cards, and hackers for hire.
One of the better-known illegal sites on the dark web was Silk Road, an online trading site founded in 2011 that sold fake IDs, heroin, and other illegal materials. The site's operator, using the pseudonym Dread Pirate Roberts, became a sort of folk hero of the dark web, offering online surfers the chance to buy illegal goods anonymously using Bitcoin.
The FBI shut down Silk Road in late 2013. The agency also arrested Ross Ulbricht, the real person behind Dread Pirate Roberts. Ulbricht is now serving life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Two more recent examples of thriving criminal enterprises on the dark web were AlphaBay and Hansa. The FBI, U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency Dutch National Police and Europol, shut down these online marketplaces in the summer of 2017. According to Europol, AlphaBay and Hansa were responsible for the trading of more than 350,000 illegal commodities including drugs, firearms and malware.
AlphaBay hosted more than 250,000 online listings for illegal drugs and more than 100,000 listings for stolen IDs, malware, firearms and counterfeit goods. Europol estimated that $1 billion of sales were made through AlphaBay since its founding in 2014.
It’s important to remember however that the dark web isn’t used solely for criminal activities. There’s a dark web version of Facebook, for instance, that people can use if they live in a country that censors social media. Reporters might use the dark web to communicate with sources who want to protect their identities from hostile governments.
Is it safe to access and browse the dark web?
If you’re careful, you can safely access and browse the dark web. First, download the Tor browser, which will give you access to dark web sites and keep you anonymous while searching the sometimes-seedier corners of the internet.
Tor will allow you to visit websites that have the .onion extension, which is why Tor’s full name is The Onion Router.
You might consider investing in a VPN, or virtual private network when accessing and searching the dark web. A VPN helps keeps you anonymous when searching the internet, whether you are scanning the surface web or the dark web. When using a reputable VPN only you and your VPN provider will know what sites you have visited.
I found my personal information on the dark web. What should I do?
What if you find your own credit card, bank account, or other personal information on the dark web?
Unfortunately there is not much you can do to remove your information from the dark web. You should change the passwords you use to access your banking and credit card accounts. You might also want to update your login credentials to any services you subscribe to (like Netflix, Spotify or meal delivery services) and your healthcare and insurance accounts.
You might also consider placing a credit freeze with each of the Australian credit bureaus, Experian, Equifax, and illion. When you enable a credit freeze — which is free — you restrict access to your credit report which means lenders won’t be able to pull your credit. This can help prevent thieves from opening new credit cards or taking out loans in your name.
A credit freeze, though, cannot stop all criminal activity. If identity thieves have already gained access to your credit card account they can still use your card to make fraudulent purchases.
You should also order your credit reports from Experian, Equifax, and illion. You are entitled to one free copy of each of your three reports once a year. You can order your reports from the credit bureaus themselves.
Study these reports for anything unfamiliar or unusual. If your reports list a credit card account under your name that you don’t remember opening, it may be a sign that thieves have used your personal information. Call that credit card provider and tell them that you never opened the account.
If you suspect that you have been the victim of identity theft, file a report with the Australian Cyber Security Centre. Next, contact the companies at which the fraud occurred — usually your bank or credit card providers. Inform each of the three major credit bureaus too.
Finally, consider investing in a credit-monitoring service that can alert you whenever potentially suspicious activity occurs on one of your financial accounts. This type of monitoring could help you catch identity theft before extensive damage is done.
You might consider signing up for Norton 360 with Lifelock, which provides identity theft protection, device security, and online privacy — all of which can be helpful in protecting your information from being illegally accessed.
*Disclaimer: The subject of the legality/illegality of the dark web in certain areas of the world is an ongoing discussion. The content of this article is not intended to be comprehensive and should not be relied upon as legal advice to consumers and is focused on US-only.