The Dark Web is the shadowy underbelly of the internet, used to hide illegal activity online. Only accessible via special software, the dark web has become a major problem for global law enforcement agencies. But what is it, where did it come from and how does it work?
What is the dark web?
The internet is actually made up of three different layers: the surface web, the deep web and the dark web.
The top layer, the surface web, are web pages that show up using search engines such as Google – like The Sun website that you’re looking at right now.
The deep web is comprised of web pages that search engines can’t access and are therefore hidden, accessed via passwords and authorization.
Any time you log in to an account you’re accessing deep web content that won’t show up on a search engine.
For example, work intranets, password-protected areas of online banking and draft blog posts are all stored on the deep web.
This means that if someone was to Google your name, your banking information or Amazon wish list won’t show up in the results.
The dark web is a network of untraceable online activity and websites on the internet. They cannot be found using search engines and to access them you need to use specific software, configurations or have authorization. They are used by lots of different people to keep their web activity hidden.
Where did the dark web come from?
The dark web was actually created by the US government to allow spies to exchange information completely anonymously.
US military researchers developed the technology, known as Tor (The Onion Router) in the mid-1990s and released it into the public domain for everyone to use.
The reason was so that they could stay anonymous – it would be harder to distinguish the government’s messages between spies if thousands of other people were using the same system for lots of different things. Tor now hosts roughly 30,000 hidden sites.
It’s called The Onion Router because it uses the technique of onion routing – making websites anonymous through layers of encryption. Most websites are also hosted on the .onion domain.
What is the government doing about the dark web?
On April 11, Home Secretary Amber Rudd launched a multi-million-pound cyber blitz on criminals selling guns on the dark web.
She announced a £9million fund to ensure every police force in the UK has a dedicated cybercrime unit to bust its “sickening shopping list of services and products”.
The extra cash will tackle offenders who are exploiting the anonymity of the dark web – where users use freely available software to avoid being tracked – to trade in guns, drugs and child abuse images.
This anonymity has attracted criminals seeking to avoid detection by law enforcement agencies.
It’s small, dark, and messy there
Searching on the dark web can be irritation – visually and operationally. Before finding a treasure of odd substances or private information, you are likely to hit a number of dead ends. According to Internet Live Stats, about 75% of these websites are inactive. Once you find them, these sites are a bit rough, like the 1990s chic. Unlike the open or surface web, these sites aren’t really worried about being found by a web crawler.
While there are Google-like equivalents trying to categorize the dark web, their results are spotty. Part of this is the incentive. Those on TOR aren’t worried about cleaning up their website with the latest SEO tricks to boost their relative ranking on the Google and Bing charts.
Regardless of the media attention, the dark web is tiny when compared to both the open and the deep web, estimated to total around 50,000 sites.
How does the dark web work?
The best explanation so far has been published by Daniel Prince, Associate Director Security at Lancaster University, on The Conversation.
Mr. Prince says: “So just for a minute imagine that the whole internet is a forest – a vast expanse of luscious green as far as the eye can see. And in the forest are well-worn paths – to get from A to B.
“Think of these paths as popular search engines – like Google – allowing you as the user the option to essentially see the wood from the trees and be connected. But away from these paths – and away from Google – the trees of the forest mask your vision.
“Off the paths, it is almost impossible to find anything – unless you know what you’re looking for – so it feels a bit like a treasure hunt. Because really the only way to find anything in this vast forest is to be told where to look.
“This is how the dark web works – and it is essentially the name given to all the hidden places on the internet.
“Just like the forest, the dark web hides things well – it hides actions and it hides identities. The dark web also prevents people from knowing who you are, what you are doing and where they are doing it.”
Who uses the dark web and why?
The dark web is used by all sorts of people for all sorts of reasons – but it’s not surprising that it’s used for illegal activity.
A study by the University of Portsmouth in 2014 found that the most wanted type of content on Tor was child porn, followed by black markets for goods such as drugs, personal details, and even guns.
This type of site is regularly busted by the police, who compromise them by distributing viruses and malware to users.
The dark web is also used for hiding online activity related to finance, extremism, arms, hacking, abuse, and fraud.
However, for others, the dark web has positive uses. For example, it can be used to avoid a national firewall, such as China, where users are normally blocked from accessing hidden sites.
It can also be used as a tool for whistleblowing – infamous website WikiLeaks is hosted on the dark web, allowing whistleblowers to anonymously upload classified information to the press.