What Is the Dark Web and Should You Access It?

Dark Web

Investopedia / Joules Garcia

What Is the Dark Web?

The term dark web refers to encrypted online content that is not indexed by conventional search engines. Accessing the dark web can only be done using specific browsers, such as TOR Browser. There is a great deal of privacy and anonymity that comes with using the dark web compared to traditional websites.

As such, most of the attention is placed on online marketplaces for drugs, exchanges for stolen data, and other illegal activities when people think of the dark web. Despite this, there are often very legitimate reasons why people choose to use the dark web, including political dissidents and people who want to keep certain information private.

Key Takeaways

  • The dark web refers to encrypted online content that is not indexed by conventional search engines.
  • Specific browsers, such as Tor Browser, are required to reach the dark web.
  • The dark web pulls up sites using information that isn't indexed online, such as bank accounts, email accounts, and databases.
  • People who use the dark web can maintain their privacy and freely express their views.
  • It also has a reputation for being associated with illicit and unethical activities.

Understanding the Dark Web

As its name implies, the dark web is a secret network that exists underground. It's made up of a series of websites that are hidden from the general public. This means they aren't accessible through traditional search engines, such as Google.

Traditional search engines return results because they contain indexes of links to websites. These are ranked based on keywords and relevancy. The dark web, on the other hand, uses information that isn't available on these other search engines, such as content from individual accounts, such as email, social media, banking, along with personal and professional databases, and documents (legal and medical).

Also called the darknet, the dark web is much like the broader web was in its early days during the late 20th century. There is a lot of material about getting it working, and not very much to do once one gets there. A lot of the content on the dark web is very amateurish. On the other hand, it is much easier for individuals to start sites and get attention. Tech giants and large media organizations have very little influence on the dark web.

As with the early internet, the dark web has a reputation as a haven for illegal activities and is frequently implicated in illicit and criminal activity. While the dark web has played a hand in illegal and unethical transactions, it also provides a social outlet for people who may otherwise be persecuted for their identities or political beliefs. It also gives legal authorities the additional tools they need to apprehend the perpetrators of unethical activities.

The dark web is still very much a work in progress, and its full costs and benefits are not yet known.

Special Considerations

People often confuse the dark web with cryptocurrencies, which are often used to make purchases there. But there is a distinct difference. The dark web makes it easier to set up and access websites that offer a high degree of anonymity for everyone involved.

Many dark web websites contain only information rather than the ability to buy or sell something. It is true, though, that cryptocurrencies, such as Bitcoin and Monero, are often used for transactions on the dark web. But one does not have to use the dark web to use cryptocurrencies.

History of the Dark Web

The dark web first officially appeared in the early 2000s along with the creation of Freenet, which was developed by Ian Clarke to secure users against government intervention and cyber attacks. The system, which is still available today, allows users to express themselves freely without being tracked online.

The U.S. Naval Research Laboratory funded a project called The Onion Router (TOR). TOR offered intelligence sources a way to communicate easily and safely, especially in hostile areas where personal safety is key. It is now one of the most common browsers used to access the dark web, using databases to help people make their way around and find the information they need.

The rise of cryptocurrencies increased the popularity of the dark web, especially for cybercriminals. That's because digital currencies often provide a great deal of anonymity for people who buy and sell on the dark web.

Because of its association with certain illicit activities, there have been calls for regulation of the dark web. For instance, the G20 and the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) have both called for cryptocurrency companies to provide information on buyers and sellers in transactions conducted online. This is especially true, they say, to help law enforcement track criminal organizations and illicit activities.

Ross Ulbricht was investigated and arrested in 2013 for creating and running the dark web site The Silk Road, a darknet website authorities said was used to buy and sell narcotics.

Dark Web vs. Deep Web

The dark web and the deep web are also often erroneously used interchangeably. The dark web is, in fact, just one part of the deep web. The deep web is what lies underground and isn't just the content that is considered dark. That's why it's also called the invisible web or the hidden web.

The information found on the deep web is normally encrypted and isn't found on indexes the way it is on the traditional web. It includes all of the pages that don’t pop up when you run a web search. It also contains everything that requires a login, such as content from:

  • Online banking
  • Pay websites, such as Netflix and Amazon Prime
  • File hosting services, such as Dropbox and its competitors
  • Private databases

The information listed on the dark web can also include anything on subscriber-only databases rather than anything illegal.

Advantages and Disadvantages of the Dark Web


The dark web helps people to maintain privacy and freely express their views. Privacy is essential for many innocent people terrorized by stalkers and other criminals. The increasing tendency of potential employers to track posts on social media can also make it difficult to engage in honest discussions publicly.

Finally, the popularity of the dark web with criminals makes it a perfect way for undercover police officers to communicate.


Some people will inevitably abuse the power associated with using the dark web by making it easier to engage in criminal activity. For example, the combination of the dark web and cryptocurrencies theoretically makes it much easier to hire someone to commit certain crimes.

While the dark web promises privacy to its users, it can also be used to violate the privacy of others. Private photos, medical records, and financial information have all been stolen and shared on the dark web.

  • Ensures privacy and freedom of expression

  • Allows law enforcement to identify criminal organizations

  • Makes it easier to engage in criminal activity

  • Can be used to violate the privacy of others

Example of the Dark Web

Let's say you want to go on the dark web to see what information of yours, if any, is floating around. You can install the TOR browser on your system by using a virtual private network. A VPN allows people to use a public network as if they were transmitting information on a private one. It basically gives you privacy on a public network.

As you surf, you'll probably notice that dark website addresses end with the .onion extension rather than the traditional .com, .org, .edu, etc. One word of warning, though. Make sure you have some security software installed because there's a good chance that you may come in contact with malware and phishing scams.

Is It Illegal to Access the Dark Web?

Despite what the name implies, it isn't illegal to access the dark web. It actually provides individuals with privacy and anonymity that traditional websites don't offer to individuals. For instance, people can go on the dark web and post their thoughts about political activity without any fear of being reprimanded by government officials and other groups.

How Do You Get on the Dark Web?

You can access the dark web by installing specific, anonymous browsers, such as TOR. Once installed, the browser works the same way traditional ones do. But it can be a little difficult to access information because it doesn't use an index to locate the desired information. Make sure that you install security software to make sure your computer and personal information are ketp safe.

How Do You Find Out If Your Information Is on the Dark Web?

Your personal information, such as banking, social media, and email accounts, along with your Social Security number, may be up for sale on the dark web. If you want to see if any of your information is floating around the dark web, try running a scan of the dark web. Alternatively, you can sign up for a dark web monitoring service. These tools warn you whenever they find any of your information.

What Do You Do If Your Information Is on the Dark Web?

You can take a number of steps to help protect your information. Make sure you change all your passwords, check your credit reports for any discrepancies, and inform your bank(s). You can also put a freeze on your credit to prevent it from being compromised any further.

The Bottom Line

The dark web is a relatively new concept, at least when you consider the history of the internet as a whole. You can use it to remain anonymous without fear of repercussion if you want to express yourself freely. But this amount of privacy has helped it gain a bad reputation as a forum for those who want to use it for illicit activities. If you're looking to use the dark web, it's as simple as installing a private browser, using a VPN, and making sure your computer remains safe and secure.

Article Sources
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  1. Norton. "Deep Web vs. Dark Web: What's the Difference?"

  2. Tor Project. "History."

  3. Norton. "How to Safely Access the Deep and Dark Webs."

  4. International Monetary Fund. "The Truth About the Dark Web."

  5. Tulane University. "Everything You Should Know About the Dark Web."

  6. U.S. Immigration and Customs. "Ross Ulbricht, AKA Dread Pirate Roberts, Sentenced to Life in Federal Prison for Creating, Operating ‘Silk Road’ Website."

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