Deep and Dark Web Guide: How To Safely Explore The Dark Web

You’ve seen dark web in the movies. You’ve heard about it in the news. You know the hackers are down there, planning attacks. But is the dark web really that bad? Why not take a look for yourself? With this article, we’ll safely guide you into the hidden depths of the internet to show you what you’ve been missing. You will learn:

  • The difference between the deep and dark web.
  • Reasons for accessing the dark web.
  • How to enter the dark web while staying safe.
  • How to avoid the bad side of the dark web.
  • The best sites to visit while you’re there.

Are you ready to explore the tricks, tips, and secrets of the deep and dark web?

Deep and Dark Web Guide: How To Safely Explore The Dark Web

In this article, you will learn everything you need to know about the deep and the dark web, including how to access them, the differences between the deep and the dark web, and why you might want to use the dark web instead of the regular internet.

Disclaimer: If you follow the instructions this course, you should be safe while using the dark web. That said, pupuweb is not responsible for any websites, content, or otherwise you encounter while using the dark web.

Content Summary

Introducing the Deep Web and Dark Web: What is the deep web? How is it different from the dark web?
Why Would You Access the Dark Web? Why visit the deep web? Is the deep web illegal?
Using the Dark Web Securely: How to browse the dark web safely using a VPN
How Do You Access the Dark Web? How to access the dark web using Tor and Tor alternatives
Navigating the Dark Web: How to navigate the dark web using dark web search engines (and other useful services and sites you should check out)
The Deep and Dark Web Roundup

Introducing the Deep Web and Dark Web: What is the deep web? How is it different from the dark web?

What Is the Deep Web?

The deep web comprises all of the “hidden” internet that’s inaccessible using a regular search engine, in a regular browser, to “regular” internet users.

The inaccessible internet isn’t as exciting as it sounds. It includes banking portals and login pages, academic journals and studies, government gateways, tax forms, long forgotten secure databases, and so on. Anything that Google and other search engines do not index. Check out these list of invisible Web Search Engines that let you explore the deep web:

But the deep web is important. It forms a vital part of the internet as we know it, keeping certain forms of data secure from prying eyes. More than that, it is enormous.

According to Dutch researcher Maurice de Kunder, the visible web contains around 5.24 billion web pages, but no one knows the true size of the deep web. Estimates range from around 10 to 500 times bigger than the regular internet. Even at a conservative estimate, it is a staggering volume of data.

The rule of thumb: if you have to log into an account to access a page, the information you are accessing is on the deep web.

What Is the Dark Web?

The dark web is an “overlay network” that you can only access using specialized software, such as the Tor Browser. An overlay network works on top of the regular internet, but requires special software to access.

Websites on the dark web require your browser to use specific security and privacy configurations that allow it to communicate with the network of anonymous websites on their anonymous servers.

What Is the Dark Web?
What Is the Dark Web?

Whereas the deep web is huge, the dark web is tiny. It is difficult to gauge the size of the dark web because most dark sites are extremely well-hidden (you cannot find them unless you are told where to look), but estimates put the number of dark sites at between 200,000 to 400,000. Of those, a huge amount are hidden services that you will not find, and the remainder mainly consist of ransomware ransom notes demanding payment to unlock infected machines.

Still, there is plenty of interesting stuff on the dark web to browse.

Are the Deep Web and the Dark Web the Same?

No.

The deep web refers to other websites whose contents are not indexed by search engines. The dark web is a network of anonymous websites.

When people talk about underground forums, hackers, assassins, purchasing stolen credentials, and credit card trading, they’re talking about sites and services hosted on the dark web. For instance, security researchers found 35 million US voter records for sale on a dark web forum.

How Does the Dark Web Work?

The majority of people access the dark web using the Tor network. Tor is an acronym for “The Onion Router.” Just as an onion has many layers, so does the Tor network. Sites hosted on the Tor network use the “.onion” domain. However, onion sites don’t use the same DNS (Domain Name System) that the clearnet (i.e. the “regular” internet) uses.

How Tor Works 1
How Tor Works 1

Normally, when you type a URL into your address bar and hit Enter, your browser uses the DNS to look up the IP address of the URL and take you there. If you try that with an onion domain in a regular browser, you’ll see nothing but an error.

How Tor Works 2
How Tor Works 2

The structure of the dark web is meant to keep its sites, services, and users anonymous. For instance, when you use the Tor Browser to access the dark web, your internet traffic moves through several anonymous nodes between your computer and the onion site you want to visit.

How Tor Works 3
How Tor Works 3

The Deep Web Is Deep

When people talk about the deep web, they usually mean the dark web. The rest of this content will be about the dark web, so from here on out, unless the deep web is specifically mentioned, the following content will all focus on the dark web.

Why Would You Access the Dark Web? Why visit the deep web? Is the deep web illegal?

What is actually on the dark web that makes it so interesting? One common misconception is that everything on the dark web is illegal, or that even accessing the dark web itself will land you in trouble.

In this lesson, we’ll explore why you might want to access the dark web, whether the dark web is safe, and most importantly, if accessing the dark web is legal.

Reasons for Accessing the Dark Web

The primary reason is anonymity. A modern computer connected to the internet gives away information: where you are, who you are, the things you enjoy, your dislikes, your family, and much more. The internet sucks up information and keeps hold of it, and once it has that information, it is extremely difficult to delete.

Privacy and anonymity don’t mix well with the modern internet. At some point, we all decided that we like our internet services free, but that came with a cost: tracking, profiling, and targeting. The dark web doesn’t have advertising tracking, nor does it profile your browser fingerprint to match your internet activity across different sites.

The dark web allows you to use the internet as a truly anonymous individual. Obviously, that means some illegal activity can flourish, but there are numerous legitimate reasons to access the dark web. For instance:

  • Security research on underground forums
  • Undercover law enforcement
  • Make an anonymous tip (several major publications operate anonymous dark web tip boxes to protect the privacy of the tipster or whistle-blower)
  • Accessing censored information; numerous governments heavily restrict internet access and content
  • Hide all of your internet activity from your regular ISP (within the Tor Browser)

More reasons exist, but the core is always the same: the dark web is a tool for privacy and anonymity.

Are the Deep Web and the Dark Web Safe?

The deep web is safe enough. You cannot access much of it, and what you can access is largely secure. (But you should always browse the internet using a reputable, up-to-date antivirus solution, such as a Malwarebytes Premium subscription.)

The dark web is a different kettle of fish. Privacy and anonymity are vital to the dark web, but security is complex. You should approach content on the dark web with caution. There are a few security issues to consider before you start clicking on links and finding onion sites:

  • Suspicious links. If you start clicking on links, you may encounter illegal content or content you might not want to view.
  • Hackers. They are real and can cause substantial damage.
  • Law enforcement. The dark web isn’t impenetrable. Some of the biggest busts on the dark web were orchestrated by dedicated undercover law enforcement officers infiltrating popular forums and marketplaces of illegal activity.
  • Criminal activity. Criminals use the dark web to buy, sell, and test their malicious activities. A site that appears perfectly normal may have a dangerous underside. You might be exploited, lose money or private data, or even lose control of your computer.

The dark web can be safe, but you must always approach it with caution.

Is the Dark Web Illegal?

No, the dark web itself is not illegal.

However, you can find illegal content and engage in illegal activities on the dark web. If the activity is illegal in the jurisdiction from which you access the dark web, it remains illegal online, too.

However, one caveat: Most people use the Tor Browser to access the dark web, and the Tor network uses strong encryption to protect users and their data. Therefore, if strong encryption is illegal in your jurisdiction (e.g. China), then accessing the Tor network is also illegal by extension.

Unsure about the status of encryption law in the country you are visiting? Check out the Crypto Law Survey for the encryption import status. The GP-Digital World Map of Encryption Laws and Policies is handy, too, as is BestVPN’s Are VPNs Legal In Your Country List (featuring 196 countries).

What Can You Do on the Dark Web?

The dark web is host to many “regular” and non-criminal sites, such as:

  • Sci-Hub is a scientific paper platform with a mission to liberate scientific knowledge from across the globe. Sci-Hub hosts more than 70 million academic papers on a vast number of subjects, and you can access it all for free. Note: MakeUseOf does not condone copyright infringement in any way.
  • The Pulitzer Prize-winning ProPublica hosts a dark web version of its main site, complete with a secure and confidential drop box.
  • Facebook hosts an onion site, allowing access for users in countries with censorship.
  • Various VPN and email providers host active dark web sites, including the extremely secure ProtonMail.

Using the Dark Web Securely: How to browse the dark web safely using a VPN

Security is of the utmost importance while browsing the internet, especially on the dark web.

In this lesson, we’ll explain how a VPN drastically increases your security on the dark web, how to steer clear of illegal sites on the dark web, and whether you should ever purchase something on the dark web using cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin.

Using the Dark Web Securely With a VPN

A virtual private network (VPN) is a secure tunnel between your computer and the internet. No one can look into the tunnel, making your data secure. You can install a VPN on your desktop, smartphone, and even a router.

Once you install a VPN, your dark web traffic has an additional layer of security from prying eyes. The VPN software encrypts your data as it leaves your device, which travels to your ISP server, then to the VPN server. The VPN server decrypts the data and releases it to the wider internet as usual. To outsiders, your activity looks like it belongs to the VPN server rather than your home computer.

You should always use a paid VPN rather than a free VPN. Most free VPNs log your data, defeating the purpose of using one if privacy is a concern. Should the government request it, a free VPN could give up those logs and lead them to you. Paid VPNs don’t need to log your data for advertising or resale purposes, thus are safer.

Two of our favorite VPN providers are ExpressVPN and CyberGhost. Both have long, respected histories of keeping your data private when it matters.

Once installed, sign-in using your credentials and always make sure the VPN is on before accessing the dark web.

How Do You Avoid Illegal Sites on the Dark Web?

It is no secret that you can buy all manner of things on the dark web. These illicit marketplaces are known as “darknet markets.” Fortunately, visiting a darknet market isn’t illegal, and you usually have to create an account to even begin looking at vendor listings.

In fact, most of the disturbing and illegal content is hidden away. You won’t find a link to such a site unless you are actively searching for it and know where to look.

The most important thing is to move slowly. If you are unsure about where a dark web link might take you, don’t click it. Some links may even lead to malware, but you can mitigate those risks with a good, up-to-date antivirus solution.

Dark web directories can be useful for checking where a link leads. For instance, Tor Browser users can use Daniel’s Onion Link List Raspberry Pi Directory. Copy the link you want to check out into the “Onion-Address” box and see what it returns. Daniel’s Onion Link List gives a brief site description, if available, plus a last seen and last tested date.

Should You Buy Stuff on the Dark Web?

Well, it depends on what you want to buy. If you’re buying a VPN or email service subscription, go ahead. However, do not use your regular banking details. If you purchase anything—and I mean, anything—you should use a cryptocurrency to do so.

Cryptocurrencies, like Bitcoin, are almost completely anonymous. Because there are significantly fewer protections in place on the dark web, entering your banking credentials is a massive no-no.

It is better to lose some cryptocurrency than it is to lose your banking details. However, be careful. There are no chargebacks, refunds, recourse, or customer service with cryptocurrencies.

Proceed With Caution on the Dark Web

If you take the proper steps, the dark web is a relatively safe place to explore. Those proper steps include:

  • Installing an antivirus solution like Malwarebytes Premium
  • Installing an ExpressVPN or CyberGhost VPN client
  • Checking links before you click them
  • Using cryptocurrency to make purchases

How Do You Access the Dark Web? How to access the dark web using Tor and Tor alternatives

In this lesson, you’ll learn how to access the dark web using the Tor Browser.

Accessing the Dark Web

Accessing the dark web is surprisingly easy. The majority of users access the dark web using the Tor Browser. Some alternatives include I2P, Freenet, GNUnet, and ZeroNet.

Pros and Cons of Tor

Tor has a lot going for it in terms of network reach. Compared to alternatives, Tor has a large user base which helps your traffic blend in. Furthermore, Tor allows you to access regular sites on the clearnet while staying protected by Tor Browser’s integrated privacy settings.

The Tor network and Tor Browser are under constant development by a dedicated team, which is another positive.

However, there are potentially insecure exit nodes that could intercept your data. The Tor network and the hidden services hosted on it are heavily scrutinized by law enforcement. Also, tiny changes can make you more vulnerable to identification. For instance, running your Tor Browser window at a custom size increases your chance of “standing out in the crowd” versus those running at the default size.

Accessing the Dark Web Using Tor

Tor software directs web traffic through a worldwide system of interconnected relay nodes. This is known as “onion routing” because your data passes through many layers. Tor encrypts all network traffic, including the next node IP address, and encrypted data passes through multiple randomly selected relays.

The final relay node decrypts the entire package, sending the data to its final destination without revealing—at any point—a source IP address.

Installing Tor Browser and Accessing the Dark Web

Here’s how you do it.

  • Start your VPN.
  • Head to the Tor Project.
  • Download the Tor Browser for Windows, macOS, Linux
  • Double-click the Tor Browser file to begin the installation process. Follow the on-screen directions. The folder location of the Tor Browser is not important.
  • Once the installation process completes, head to the Tor Browser folder. (The one just created during installation.) For instance, I head to C:/Tor Browser.
  • Select Start Tor Browser. Choose Connect.
  • If there is a Tor Browser update available, install it before progressing. This is very important. A poorly configured browser could leak your data.

That’s it! You’re about to start browsing the dark web. You should not mess around with the Tor Browser settings; they work out of the box, and if you mess with them, you could inadvertently expose yourself.

Want to check if it is working? Here is an onion link for The Hidden Wiki. Incidentally, The Hidden Wiki is a handy place for first-time dark web users, full of interesting and helpful links (and some fairly dodgy links further down the page, so don’t use those!).

The Hidden Wiki
The Hidden Wiki

Another way you can check the Tor Browser routing is working correctly is through whatismyipaddress. Head to the site within the Tor Browser, and it will tell you your current IP address, as well as if that IP address is a Tor Exit Node (which is what you want).

whatismyipaddress
whatismyipaddress

Four Tor Alternatives

Tor Browser isn’t the only way you can access the dark web. There are several alternatives, each with pros and cons.

I2P

I2P is a Tor alternative that uses a modified onion routing protocol known as garlic routing. You cannot access onion sites fro I2P, though like Tor, I2P is an encrypted overlay network (albeit substantially smaller than Tor).
I2P also has very few exit nodes to the clearnet, and those that do exist are rarely used. This is a slight inconvenience, but it does increase your security and privacy. Furthermore, I2P is designed for hidden sites and services from the ground up, further enhancing network security.

I2P
I2P

Freenet

Freenet is a peer-to-peer network, which uses a similar architecture to I2P. Again, you cannot visit onion sites with Freenet. This network allows you to anonymously share files, send messages, and publish and host anonymous websites.

In comparison to Tor, Freenet has a stronger focus on direct file sharing, using extremely powerful encryption. It is also one of the easiest networks to set up and comes with several handy directories to help you find your way about, although it is extremely slow.

GNUnet

GNUnet uses a decentralized peer-to-peer network to provide a secure and anonymous dark web and Tor alternative. GNUnet is a mesh network that enables randomized data routing while offering encryption, integrated electronic payment systems, decentralized social networking (known as secushare), and more.

GNUnet can access some Tor hidden services using certain configurations.

ZeroNet

For some, ZeroNet is the evolution of the Tor network, at times dubbed “dark web 2.0.”, and it’s well worth your time. That is because ZeroNet is a decentralized peer-to-peer network that uses Bitcoin addresses instead of IP addresses to locate and host websites (known as “zites”).

ZeroNet uses peer-to-peer technology to maintain privacy while keeping sites online. A ZeroNet zite that still has an active connection cannot be removed from the network, thus making it impossible for some censorship methods to disrupt the network. ZeroNet can access some Tor hidden services using certain configurations.

ZeroNet
ZeroNet

Navigating the dark web is strange because you cannot just Google what you want. While there are dark web search engines, they’re not the same as Google or other regular internet search sites. That’s because the dark web isn’t indexed in the same way.

In this lesson, we’ll explore dark web search engines, alternative ways to browse the dark web, and cap it off with some useful dark web sites and services for you to check out.

Navigating the Dark Web in Tor

The Tor network has a few handy navigation resources that make finding other onion sites easier. As ever, be careful what you click!

The Hidden Wiki

The first place to check out is The Hidden Wiki. You visited The Hidden Wiki on Day 4 of the course to test if your Tor Browser configuration was up and running. But it remains a handy jumping off point for new dark web users.

The Hidden Wiki
The Hidden Wiki

Not Evil

Not Evil works more like a regular internet search and is the successor to TorSearch (another Tor search engine) and the Evil Wiki (another listing site).

For instance, a search for “Facebook” returns the official Facebook onion site. A search for “Proton” returns the official ProtonMail onion site, and so on.

Not Evil
Not Evil

Daniel’s Onion Link List Raspberry Pi Directory

Daniel’s Onion Link List popped up in Day 4. It is back again today because it a great index directory that gives you a brief site description, the last seen and last tested dates, as well as when the onion site first hit the Tor network. Daniel’s Onion Link List does include every type of site, so carefully read descriptions before hitting links. Handily, the directory also slaps a “SCAM” label on any sites that will attempt to steal your information.

Daniel's Onion Link List Raspberry Pi Directory
Daniel’s Onion Link List Raspberry Pi Directory

The Best Sites and Services on the Dark Web

Instead of meandering through the dark web, why not use one of the following links to some of the best sites and services?

ProtonMail

ProtonMail is one of the best secure email services on both the clearnet and the dark web. You don’t have to access the ProtonMail website using the dark web. But if you sign up via the dark web and use cryptocurrency to purchase your account, you will remain completely anonymous. Please note that ProtonMail does not and cannot access your account. It does have an automated password and username recovery service though, which is quite handy.

Please note you must create your free ProtonMail account, then upgrade to a Premium account using Bitcoin afterwards.

Visit Tor

Visit Tor is a huge directory containing links for many thousands of onion sites. There are handy sections for all manner of sites and services, including Games, Communications, Core Sites, Hosting, Politics and Religion, and so on.

Visit Tor also features a Stumble button. Beware! This takes you to any of the listings, regardless of content or legality.

Visit Tor
Visit Tor

Numbers Station

The Numbers Station is thought to link to Chinese intelligence
The original Numbers Stations were radio broadcasts containing seemingly unintelligible sequences of numbers, words, or sounds. While it is speculation, numbers stations are strongly suspected to have links to various intelligence agencies around the globe, communicating with spies in the field.

There’s not much to it, but the consistency and longevity of the site does make it somewhat unnerving.

The Matrix Game

You can pretend you are Neo, straight out of The Matrix into your screen, with green text on a black background. I won’t give you many details because it is a game of sorts. But if you’re stuck to begin with, type “help.”

The Matrix Game
The Matrix Game

ProPublica

The aforementioned award-winning investigative news outlet hosts a dark web version of the site. Why not just use the clearnet version? In some countries, publications like ProPublica are heavily censored due to their knack for uncovering extremely compromising information on governments, businesses, charities, individuals, and more.

The dark web version of the site also features a secure drop box for activists, whistleblowers, and other confidential data drops.

If you encounter a cross-site scripting attack, select Block. This is a false positive.

Deep Web Radio

The dark web wouldn’t be complete without a soundtrack. Check out Deep Web Radio for the sounds of the dark web. Deep Web Radio lets you stream a number of radio stations completely anonymously, without advertising, for as long as you want. There’s a decent number of stations to choose from, too.

Deep Web Radio
Deep Web Radio

What Are You Looking For?

If you have a clear idea of what you want to find on the dark web, or use the dark web for, you can use one of the dark web search engines or directories to find what you need. The key thing to remember is that a dark web search engine doesn’t work in the same manner as a clearnet search engine because of the lack of indexing.

As you can see in the TORCH example, a search for Facebook doesn’t return the regular Facebook page, or even the Facebook onion site. In that, be careful what you click—you can use Daniel’s Link List to figure out if a link is safe or not.

The Deep and Dark Web Roundup

You now know the difference between the deep web and the dark web, how to access the dark web, and why you would want to do that to begin with. Better still, you know how to keep yourself and your computer secure while you explore what the dark web has to offer, as well as why using a VPN gives you an extra security boost.

Source: MakeUseOf Courses