Even if you’re writing emails like a pro, have insane YouTube skills, and are followed by many on Instagram, there may still be uncharted lands on your Internet map. What if I told you that you can only see a mere fraction of the things the Internet has to offer?
Beneath the surface, there is a much deeper layer that is inaccessible via your common browser – the dark web and deep web. But accessing this part of the net is not very safe unless you take certain precautions. So make yourself comfortable in your seat and learn how you can safely access the Dark and Deep web.
What is the Deep web?
The Deep Web is a part of the web that hasn’t been indexed by regular search engines. In that sense, it is the opposite of the Surface web.
The Surface web includes all the publicly available websites. Because everyone can access them, they are easily categorized according to various keywords in a process known as indexing. So, various search engines like Google, Bing, DuckDuckGo, and others can retrieve these sites when you search for certain keywords.
Deep web websites are inaccessible without meeting certain conditions. Often, you have to be a registered user, come from a specific IP address, or require some other special login. That is why you cannot google someone’s social security number, although it exists on government databases connected to the Internet.
Both of these layers are not independent from each other. The surface web goes hand in hand with Deep web. The same websites usually have both layers. For example, Netflix.com belongs to a Surface web. However, your personalized front page with particular suggestions based on your preferences lies in the Deep web.
Dark web vs. Deep web: What’s the difference?
The Deep web can be further fragmented: it can have sites requiring special conditions to access and a different browser. The websites in this layer are known as the Dark web. By design, they’re dedicated to making your visits anonymous. That’s the whole purpose of such networks. However, privacy attracts a mixed crowd, so you’ve probably heard about the shady marketplaces, known as darknet markets.
Despite this, many activists use them for privacy and as a source to voice their opinion freely. There are several Deep web networks, each requiring a different setup, but Tor is the most popular. You may also encounter Freenet, I2P, ZeroNet, and Riffle, they’re used for similar purposes.
How to access the Dark web safely
Your connection with Tor passes through three publicly hosted nodes chosen randomly before reaching the intended website. However, many users prefer to opt for additional measures to go the extra mile when it comes to privacy.
There are many options to pick from: for an additional privacy-minded OS like Tails (or The Amnesic Incognito Live System), burner laptops, etc. However, for this guide, I picked a VPN with a standard Tor configuration, which should provide enough safety and be easy to set up for most users.
#1 Find a reliable VPN service provider
Before you descend into the darkest corners of the Internet, you should probably get a barrier between yourself and your activities. For that, you could use a VPN service that encrypts your data and hides your identity. There are many VPN service providers, so pick whichever you find the most trustworthy.
#2 Set up your account
You have the option to choose between paid and free VPN providers. Free ones are generally not the best contenders. Some tend to sell off your data. So, you should stick to premium paid VPN providers for the best experience. You can make the transaction more anonymous with cryptocurrencies and providing as few ties to your identity as possible.
#3 Set up your VPN client
You’ll need to follow your provider’s instructions to set up the client on your device. This means installing the software and enabling features like the kill switch that will help you keep your privacy safe. You should also test if it works by going to a website like whatismyipaddress.com and checking if it’s displaying the VPN’s IP address.
#4 Pick one of the available overlay networks
If you have your VPN up and running, you can start looking at the overlay networks. Their clients and configurations may differ, but some can be used interchangeably. For example, you can use Freenet inside Tor. Of course, that opens a lot of additional security issues that you might want to avoid. So, you should stick with one, Tor is the most popular and should be the easiest one to pick up.
#5 Set up your overlay network client
Disable iframes, these are used to insert links within links. So, as you’ve probably guessed, they can be used to display content that you don’t want to see or guide you to malware.
Finally, disable referrers, these tell which website you came from and give more data that can be used to narrow down who the potential user could be. Naturally, you should want to keep this information as minimal as possible.
#6 Find a website and connect
Rather than relying on search engines, you’ll have to visit darknet website aggregators and wikis to find links for actual websites. Of course, if you want to feel how it all works, you can try out darknet versions of legit websites. For example, you can read Onion-specific The New York Times here: https://nytimes3xbfgragh.onion.
The best VPNs for the Dark web
I’ve gathered some VPNs that should provide suitable privacy and anonymity when browsing the Dark web.
Mullvad VPN is one of the most respected VPN services and will keep you absolutely anonymous. They accept payments with cryptocurrencies and even cash. If you’re very privacy-conscious, you can send a registered letter to pay for your subscription, keeping this transaction totally off the books. Even when registering, you’re given only a code for identification.
Read more: Mullvad VPN review
ExpressVPN not only claims to protect your privacy, but it has also been field-tested. In 2017, a Russian Ambassador in Turkey was assassinated. According to the reports, the suspect used ExpressVPN to delete suspicious communications on his Gmail and Facebook. Turkish law enforcement even seized one of ExpressVPN’s servers, however, they found nothing because there were genuinely no logs.
This service is more recent, so it’s not as widely known. However, the main thing that makes it impressive is its low price. It’s currently one of the cheapest VPNs, so you could save a lot of your hard-earned money and get good security and anonymity measures.
This service is actually a part of a larger family of cybersecurity products. Although VPN is just one of them, it’s their oldest product. It has advanced safety measures like next-gen tunneling protocol NordLynx, which is much faster when compared to the likes of OpenVPN-family speeds. Dark web webpages are notoriously slow to load. Every second you can shave off with your VPN connection is a second gained.
Is the Dark web illegal?
The short answer is “No.”
One of the main talking points about the Dark web is their illegal markets or darknets. There you can find anything from snuff films, drugs, or contract killers. Need I mention that all of the things mentioned above are illegal? Law enforcement is continually trying to crack down on markets for these activities. Still, since these networks are built around the user’s privacy, this isn’t as easy as it would seem. Some arrests here and there pop up when the police are trying to apprehend sellers or buyers.
However, this does not mean that you should expect police at your door if you’ve installed Tor. There are plenty of genuine forums, anonymous social media sites like BlackBook. You can visit the Tor version of WikiLeaks if the regular version is unavailable in your country. So, it has many uses, the technology itself isn’t illegal, just don’t buy anything when you’re there.
The dangers of surfing the Dark web
Suppose you’re just browsing without plans to buy or download anything. In that case, the associated risks are about the same as with the normal web. If you act careless online, you’re risking getting in trouble. With the Dark web, stakes could be slightly higher because finding illegal stuff is relatively easy. A couple of clicks and you could realistically face jail time for purchasing drugs. Several Dark web websites list the stories of sellers and buyers who got caught. So, your best bet if you don’t want to end up in this list of shame is to steer clear of the sketchy stuff.
It applies not only to police surveillance. The Dark web is filled with gruesome videos and other disturbing things. So, you should always be cautious when clicking a link. Generally, if you’re not sure what you’ll find – don’t click. Your stomach and mental state will thank you later.
Dark web safety rules
Here are some general usage tips to keep your Dark web journeys as safe as possible.
Rule #1 – Don’t reveal your real identity
No VPN in the world will protect you if you overshare your details. If someone is asking your address to send a free sample, asks for your bank account details, they probably shouldn’t be asking, and you probably shouldn’t be sharing.
Rule #2 – Treat every website as a phishing website until proven otherwise.
Dark web as a term is now in the public domain. So, naturally, curious individuals will be going there to look at all those drugs and weapons being sold. However, this is also an opportunity for scammers to trick them into phishing websites. So, treat every website as a phishing website, and give them neither bitcoins nor your banking information.
Rule #3 – Go to the Dark web just for the Dark web
Tor will not substitute your regular browser. If you’re logging into your personal Facebook and then visiting shady marketplaces, it becomes too easy to link these two identities together. So, just keep these activities separate.
Is the Dark web safe?
Accessing the content on the Dark web is relatively safe. Same as using a regular browser. Where the danger comes in is when you buy from illegal marketplaces or download files. While downloads may contain malware or keyloggers, the police can trace illegal purchases and get you in trouble.
Can I use the Dark web on my phone?
You can use Tor on your mobile phone. However, it does not mean that you should. Mobile users (particularly Android) are not on the top of the pyramid when it comes to security.
What is sold on the Dark web?
The Dark web has many marketplaces or darknets. There, you can find pretty much everything you would find on the black market. It includes, but is not limited to, drugs, weapons, crimeware, child pornography, torture videos, and so on. Consider yourself warned.
Which is worse, Dark web or Deep web?
Neither is worse. It’s just how the media spins stories about the closure of websites like the Silk Road. Dark web networks are just overlay networks that require a particular configuration, while the Deep web requires special permissions. So it’s only technology.
Who created the Dark web?
The Dark web is really just a closed off network. The first example of this would be the US government project that split into a military version or MILNET, and ARPANET used by the civilians, which later became the basis of the Internet. From this standpoint, MILNET could be called the first Dark web.