A common misconception about the internet is that, once you open google, you can access anything and everything available online. In fact, only about 5-10% of the information on the internet is available through common browsers like Google Chrome or Mozilla Firefox, known as the ‘surface web’.
Everything else on the internet is located on either the deep web or the dark web – and they aren’t as easily accessible, or as safe. So if you’re planning on accessing the dark web, here’s all you need to know.
What's the difference between the Deep Web and the Dark Web?
First things first, it’s important to know the difference between what is meant by the ‘Deep Web’ and the ‘Dark Web’. The two terms are often used interchangeably, so knowing exactly what the difference is can be crucial.
The Deep Web
Search engines such as Google search an index of websites, using links to form a hierarchy of results based on everything from temporal relevance to keywords.
But if you want to find something that isn’t a link – a planning document from a local council archive, for example – a google search won’t really help you. Instead, you'd have to go to the local council website and use their internal search engine to find it.
If you’ve already done that, or even something similar, that’s good news – you’re already a deep web user accessing information not available through common search engines. Everything from social media data to medical records are held on the deep web, as is all your email information.
The Dark Web
Although the dark web represents a small fraction of the totality of the deep web, it has attracted perpetual media attention over the last few years. You need a special browser to access it, and when you do, your internet traffic is not wired through the network of interrelated public servers in the way it is when you access the surface web.
The Dark Web is home to a lot of harmless content and has some good uses – journalists sometimes use it to source anonymous tips – but the reputation that precedes it is owed to the fact it has become a hotbed for criminal activity. Stolen information from data breaches, drugs, guns, malware and various other illegal items can be bought there. Check out our article on the dark side of the dark web for more information about the dangers of the darknet.
With dangers like this in mind, it’s even more important to stay safe when surfing the Dark Web than any other part of the internet.
How do I access The Dark Web?
To access the Dark Web, you have to use a browser called Tor, also known as The Onion Router. This is the only way to ensure a maximally anonymous – as well as safe – browsing experience on the Dark Web.
The reason behind the name is that Tor implements a technique for anonymous communication called onion routing, which relies on layers upon layers of encryption (like the layers of an onion) to protect users.
When using Tor, your traffic will never reach its intended destination directly, as it would on surface web browsers. Instead, it is funneled through different ‘nodes’ – other user’s computers – before coming out the other side. These computers are all owned by volunteers, passionate about privacy and happy to offer up their device to help others. Traffic is relayed through three nodes each time it passes through the Tor network.
Importantly, each node is representative of an additional layer of encryption. No node can track the complete path the traffic has taken, and more importantly, neither can anyone who finds it on the other side. Only the entry node can view your IP address (more on how to stop this happening later).
In this way, your browsing experience is made as anonymous as possible – if someone was ‘watching’ you, so to speak, all they’d be able to see is that you’re using Tor.
How do I download Tor?
The Tor download for Windows, OS X, Linux and Android operating systems is available on the Tor website. Don’t worry if you live in a country where Tor is blocked, there is a way to bypass those restrictions after you click on the download.
Remember to uninstall any plug-ins you have before downloading, or prepare for them to be blocked – they can sometimes reveal your IP address, even if you’re using a VPN or onion router.
How do I keep myself safe when on the dark web?
Although Tor certainly does what it says on the tin very well, it is not the limit of precautionary action you can take when visiting the Dark Web. Here's what you should do whilst using Tor:
- Don’t give away information that identifies you – Tor is certainly a robust method of protection, but there’s one thing it can’t stop – users giving the game away themselves. As soon as you log into a Facebook account or pay for something, your name’s out there, no matter how many layers of encryption Tor provides.
- Get acquainted with Tor’s features – There are features of Tor that can help if you're worried about some information you inputted into a site whilst on the Dark Web. The ‘new identity’ function, for instance, uncouples your subsequent activity from what you were doing previously. Alternatively, you can request a whole new circuit, which resets your connection.
- Regularly update Tor – It might sound like a unique piece of tech, but Tor, just like everything else, works to the best of its abilities when fully up to date.
- Switch up your search engine – Mainstream search engines store data on users all the time – so switching to a site such as disconnect.me, which doesn’t track your activity like Google and Mozilla, is a good additional step to take.
Some .onion dark websites are known to contain malware, and dangerous scripts designed to damage your computer, steal your information and identify you. So always be careful when using them.
Do I need a VPN too?
As was mentioned previously, Tor entry nodes can still see your IP address. If you want to mitigate that possibility, downloading a VPN is the best way to do so – it funnels your traffic through a private server and keeps your IP address hidden. There are plenty of services that offer a VPN over onion feature, which will keep you secure and private online.
If this sounds like a precaution you’d like to take, make sure to download one of these ultra-secure VPNs, tried and tested by ProPrivacy:
If you want to access the dark web, Tor is the way to do it. But with the NSA setting up fake exit nodes, and growing concerns about the overall security of the network, you may need a VPN as well, if you want to ensure your privacy.
Remember: If you access the dark web, you do so at your own risk.