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Emerging Threats

What is the dark web?

You likely spend plenty of time on the web, scanning the headlines, reading celebrity gossip, checking your bank accounts, and pouring over Twitter and Facebook. But did you know there is a whole other world on the web that is largely hidden from view? It’s known as the dark web.

The dark web draws plenty of headlines as it's made up of hidden sites that you can’t find through a conventional search engine. Dark web sites use encryption software to provide anonymity for their users and to hide their locations. It’s why the dark web is home to so much illegal activity. If you tap into the dark web, you’ll find everything from illegal drug and gun sales to pornography and online gambling.

You might confuse the dark web with the deep web. The deep web is also hidden, in a way. But it’s home to benign sites — people’s password-protected email accounts, the intranets run by businesses, the online bank account pages of consumers, government databases, and private sites that require users to type in a log-in name and password.

The deep web is therefore largely innocuous, while the dark web is a small subset of the deep web that has become a haven for illegal activity. But there are legitimate reasons to visit this potentially dangerous region of the internet.

For instance, dissidents who fear political prosecution from their governments might use the hidden dark web to communicate with each other and sometimes journalists use the dark web so they or their sources can remain anonymous.

Want to learn more about this hidden world of the internet? Here’s a guide that will help. Be careful, though — the dark web can be dangerous and if you want to explore it for illegal activities, you could face prosecution and jail time. Depending on where you visit, you could also be exposed to scammers and cybercriminals who could attempt to infect your devices with malware or steal your personal information.

Dark web: The facts

It’s true that the dark web is often used by cybercriminals. But it is also visited by journalists, law enforcement agencies and other legitimate users. ProPublica, an investigative news organization, runs its own site on the dark web to communicate with sources who request anonymity. Even Facebook has its own dark web site for users whose countries have banned the social media network.

Of course, the dark web has also gained plenty of notoriety for black market drug sales illegal firearm sales, and illicit pornography. That’s because the sites that make up the dark web rely on a pair of anonymity software services, Tor and I2P. These programs encrypt web traffic, hiding the IP addresses of the servers who host these dark web sites. This means that you can visit the sites, but it’s difficult to figure out where these sites are hosted or who is hosting them. This anonymity makes the dark web attractive for criminals.

What’s on the dark web?

The dark web does deserve elements of its seedy reputation. A 2016 report from researchers Daniel Moore and Thomas Rid, of King’s College London, looked at 5,205 live sites on the dark web and found that 2,723 contained illicit content.

What does this mean? The report found that visitors to the dark web can buy and sell guns, drugs, counterfeit money, other people’s social media accounts, credit card numbers, and more. You can also find software that you can use to access other people’s computers.

There’s also content that is entirely legal. You’ll also come across online versions of books that have long been out of print, a collection of political reporting from mainstream news sites, and several sites run by whistle-blowers looking to expose corporate and government corruption.

Bitcoin and cryptocurrency

The dark web wouldn’t be nearly as successful if it wasn’t for Bitcoin and other forms of cryptocurrency. Why? This type of virtual currency allows people to make sales or purchase items without knowing each other’s identity. This anonymity makes cryptocurrencies ideal for the dark web.

You might think that it’s safe to buy items from the dark web as long as you’re using a form of online currency that keeps you anonymous. But this isn’t necessarily the case. Remember, the anonymity of the dark web is attractive to scammers and criminals. There’s no guarantee that these thieves won’t scam you, even if you are using a virtual currency. Maybe the items you pay for won’t arrive. Or maybe the scammers will send you something you didn’t order. Many of the sites on the dark web don’t come with much protection.

Black markets and hidden services

The dark web might be most notable for providing black markets that visitors can use to buy illicit drugs — Silk Road is a good example which is an online drug market that was shut down by the FBI in 2013. A new version of the site came online later that year but was also shut down. The founder of the site, Ross Ulbricht (who went under the false name Dread Pirate Roberts) was arrested in late 2014 and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. AlphaBay another popular online marketplace was shut down in 2017.

Other criminal activities

The dark web is known for other criminal activities, most notably pornography — including child pornography — and illegal firearm sales. Our advice? If you do go on the dark web, be mindful about what you click on or who you interact with, so you do not inadvertently view or access questionable or illegal content.

Is it illegal to access the dark web?

Surfing the dark web isn’t illegal. Buying illegal drugs or firearms from a site on the dark web or downloading child pornography? That is illegal.

In the summer of 2018, the U.S. Department of Justice, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Secret Service, Drug Enforcement Administration, and the U.S. Postal Inspection Service teamed up to arrest more than 35 dark web vendors of drugs, weapons, and other illegal products. The agencies also seized $23.6 million in illegal guns, drugs, gold, and Bitcoin.

How to access the dark web

You still want to access the dark web? Here’s how to do it.

Be safe

There are legitimate sites on the dark web, but searching for illegal drugs, guns, or pornography could be asking for trouble.

Download Tor

Tor is a popular browser that people use today to search the internet anonymously. It is also a popular browser for people who want to search the dark web.

Tor stands for “the onion routing project”. It was developed by the U.S. Navy and made available to the public in 2004. To download this browser, go to torproject.org. You’ll actually have to find the dark web sites that you want to search, though, and this remains difficult.

Consider using Norton Secure VPN

If you want to boost your privacy while surfing the dark web, you might consider purchasing a virtual private network — or VPN — from Norton. A VPN provides you with anonymity by creating a private network from a public internet connection. This prevents online criminals from eavesdropping on your Wi-Fi connection and intercepting any data you might be sending or receiving.

Carefully browse and do not divulge any personal information

Again, be careful when browsing the dark web. Even if you are visiting this corner of the internet for legitimate reasons, it’s easy to stumble upon some bad places. Don’t divulge any of your personal information and don’t do anything online that you wouldn’t do in real life.

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