The "dark net," also known as the "dark web," is part of the greater "deep web," a network of secret websites that exist on an encrypted network.

The Internet is an immensely vast place, made up of billions of individual sites that are connected to one another in various, intricate ways. Although Internet activities dominate our modern lives, the Internet has only been around for a few decades. This is a relatively short period of time relative to the course of human history. However, technology evolves at such a rapid rate that it could be considered many technological lifetimes.

The most famous Internet destinations, such as Facebook (FB), Google (GOOG) and Amazon (AMZN), generate traffic from around the world. The vast majority of the Internet is made up of basic, accessible areas that are less-trafficked than the most popular destinations. Another part of the Internet is a group of sites referred to as the "deep web." The dark net is part of the deep web.

Key Takeaways

  • The dark net, also known as the "dark web," is a component of the greater "deep web," a network of encrypted Internet content that is not accessible via traditional search engines.
  • The dark net is most often used for illegal activities such as black markets, illegal file sharing, and the exchanging of illegal goods or services (including stolen financial and private data), and the anonymity of the darknet attracts drug-dealers, hackers, and child pornography peddlers.
  • Dark net markets have been instrumental in the development of cryptocurrencies because transactions completed on dark net markets using cryptocurrency protect both the buyer and seller.

Dark Net vs. Deep Web

The terms "dark net" and "deep web" are occasionally used interchangeably. However, this is not correct. The dark net is part of the greater deep web. The deep web encompasses all unindexed sites that don't pop up when you do an Internet search.

Not all activities associated with the deep web are nefarious. In most cases, these pages are not searchable through traditional channels because they are password-protected and require specific tools or authorization (like a log-in) in order to access them. Personal email, online banking, and other similar sites are included under the umbrella of the "deep web."

The dark net is part of the deep web, but it refers to websites that are specifically used for nefarious reasons. Dark net sites are purposefully hidden from the surface net by additional means. The dark net facilities black markets, activities like illegal file sharing, and the exchanging of illegal goods or services including stolen financial and private data. In order to hide exchanges in this hidden economy, bitcoin is often used as a currency.

The anonymity of the dark web attracts drug-dealers, hackers, and child pornography peddlers. Hitmen and other illegal operatives can also advertise their services on the dark net in ways they could not over traditional channels.

The dark net is occasionally used for noble reasons by Internet users who need to operate anonymously. Journalists seeking to interview citizens of repressive countries where communications are monitored might use the dark net. The dark net can facilitate whistleblowing and news leaks, act as a tool to allow individuals to circumvent censorship networks, and can be used as a means of protecting political dissidents from reprisal.

Encryption and the Dark Net

One of the most common ways that dark net websites are separated out from the surface net is through encryption. Most dark net websites use the Tor encryption tool to help hide their identity.

Tor allows individuals to hide their location, appearing as if they are in a different country. Tor-encrypted networks require that individuals use Tor in order to visit them. When individuals use Tor, their IP addresses and other identifying information is similarly encrypted. It is not difficult for an individual to access the dark net as long as they have the proper encryption tools. But it can be hard to determine who created certain websites on the dark net, and if you've participated in the dark net and your identity is revealed, it can be very dangerous.

The Tor encryption tool uses many layers of encryption and anonymizes all traffic by routing it through a dense network of secure relays. Tor software is not illegal but the way that it is used can be illegal. Tor is not always used to access dark net services.

Tor estimates only roughly 3.4% of its traffic is used for dark net services; the remainder can be accounted for by individuals accessing regular Internet sites with an increased level of security and anonymity.

Example of the Dark Net

When people think of the dark net, a few prominent examples come to mind. Dark net websites that attract media attention are usually being used for illegal purposes. However, there are parts of the dark net that are not necessarily illegal.

Not all activity on the dark net is illegal.

One of the most famous examples of a dark net website was called the Silk Road marketplace. Silk Road was used for buying and selling a variety of illegal items, including recreational drugs and weapons.

Silk Road was founded in 2011 and is often considered the first dark net market. Although it was shut down by government authorities in 2013, it has spawned a number of copycat markets.

Dark net markets like the Silk Road were instrumental in the development of cryptocurrencies because cryptocurrency transactions on dark net markets protect both the buyer and seller.

Reasons to Use or Avoid the Dark Net

Aside from illegal purchases and sales, there are legitimate reasons to use the dark net. Individuals within closed societies and facing extreme censorship can utilize the dark net to communicate with others outside of their society. Even individuals within open societies may use the dark net if they are concerned about government activity (as snooping and data collection continues to grow worldwide).

Nevertheless, the majority of activity on the dark net is illegal. This is easily explained by the fact that the dark net offers a level of identity security that the surface net does not. The dark net is appealing to criminals looking to protect their identities in order to evade detection. Since its inception, the dark net has gained notoriety for the notable hacks and data breaches that have been associated with its usage.

For example, in 2015, for example, user information was stolen from Ashley Madison, a website that connects people with opportunities to cheat on their partners. The stolen data was originally shared on the dark net, but it was later retrieved and shared with the public.

In 2016, then-U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch cautioned that gun sales taking place over the dark net were becoming more common. Buyers and sellers can avoid any local or federal regulations when purchasing arms on the dark net. Illegal pornography is also commonly shared on the dark net.

Considering that the dark net is usually used for illicit purposes, it makes sense that the majority of the general populace has no reason to access it. However, as digital currencies become more common in the financial world, it's possible that the dark net will become a feature of everyday life. It is important to keep in mind that, no matter how commonplace the dark net becomes in the near future, it may always provide criminals a means of eluding capture and true anonymity is never guaranteed.

Investing in cryptocurrencies and other Initial Coin Offerings ("ICOs") is highly risky and speculative, and this article is not a recommendation by Investopedia or the writer to invest in cryptocurrencies or other ICOs. Since each individual's situation is unique, a qualified professional should always be consulted before making any financial decisions. Investopedia makes no representations or warranties as to the accuracy or timeliness of the information contained herein. At the time of writing, the author owns cryptocurrencies.