What is the dark web?


The dark web is often used by cybercriminals. But it’s also visited by journalists, law enforcement agencies and others.

Most of us spend plenty of time on the web, scanning the headlines, reading entertainment pages, checking our bank accounts, and scrolling through social media to keep track of our friends’ latest holiday destinations. But did you know there is a whole other area on the web that is mostly hidden from view? There is, and it’s known as the dark web.

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Who created the dark web?

The idea of an anonymous online communications network, which is the core of what the dark web is, stretches all the way back to the 1960's with the creation of ARPANET - Advanced Research Projects Agency Network. This was an experimental computer network created in the 1960's that was the precursor to the Internet and later, the dark web. At their core, both the dark web and ARPANET are rooted in the same idea of secure correspondence.

The 80’s saw the rise of data havens. Data havens functioned in a way like tax havens in that large amounts of data could be exported to countries with lax laws to keep it out of the hands of governments at home.

In the 90’s we saw the growth of illegal music streaming as the internet launched. People began to realise that the Internet was becoming the go to place to get whatever they wanted whenever they wanted, it was only a matter of time until more illegal transactions started happening online.

On March 20, 2000 the dark web was “officially” launched with the release of Freenet: a peer-to-peer, decentralised network, that was designed to make it less vulnerable to attack and snooping by authorities and states. Freenet was the brainchild of Ian Clarke, who developed the concept and the software tools required to support it during his studies at Edinburgh University in the United Kingdom. Though Freenet didn't gain a huge following, it helped stimulate demand for anonymous Internet access.

In 2002, Tor was launched. This was a private Internet browsing network. Tor changed the face of the Internet forever. By creating an environment in which people could browse online freely and anonymously, Tor's creators opened the door to the underbelly of the Internet we know today and spurned the growth cryptocurrencies, forums for illegal activity like the Silk Road and it’s use by hackers and cybercriminals among others.

What is the dark web used for?

You may have heard the dark web being mentioned in the media and news reports. That’s because this part of the web is made up of hidden sites not normally found through conventional search engines. Dark web sites use encryption software to provide anonymity for their users and to hide their locations. It’s why the dark web is home to so much illegal activity. Tapping into the dark web, you can find everything from illegal drug sales to pornography and online gambling.

What is the deep web?

Wait a second, but what is the deep web then? The deep web is also hidden, in a way and is home to more benign sites — people’s password-protected email accounts, the intranets run by businesses, the online bank account pages of consumers, government databases, and private sites that require users to type in a log-in name and password. 

The deep web, then, is largely harmless, while the dark web is a small subset of the deep web that has become a haven for illegal activity. But there are legitimate reasons to visit this potentially dangerous region of the web.

For instance, dissidents who fear political prosecution from their governments might use the hidden dark web to communicate with each other. You might visit the dark web to get medical advice that you’d be embarrassed to have exposed or journalists could use the dark web so they or their sources can remain anonymous.

Want to learn more about this hidden world of the internet? Here’s a guide that will help. Be careful, though: The dark web can be dangerous. And if you want to explore it for illegal activities, you could face prosecution from the authorities and face jail time. Depending on where you visit and what you do, you may also be exposed to cybercriminals and scammers who could attempt to infect your devices with malware or steal your personal information.

Dark web: The facts

Yes, the dark web is often used by cybercriminals. But it is also visited by journalists, law enforcement agencies and other legitimate users. Investigative news organizations run sites on the dark web to communicate with sources who want anonymity. Even a well-known social media network has its own dark web site for users whose countries have banned the social media network.

Of course, the dark web has also gained plenty of notoriety for black market drug sales, illegal activity and illicit pornography. That’s because the sites that make up the dark web rely on two anonymity software services, Tor and I2P. These programs encrypt web traffic, hiding the IP addresses of the servers who host these dark web sites. This means that you can visit the sites, but it’s difficult to figure out where these sites are hosted or who is hosting them. This anonymity makes the dark web attractive for many types of criminals.

What’s on the dark web?

The dark web does deserve some of its seedy reputation. Visitors to the dark web can potentially buy and sell guns, drugs, counterfeit money, other people’s online accounts, credit card numbers, and more. You can also find software that you can use to access other people’s computers. But, again, the dark web isn’t just for criminals. You’ll also come across online versions of books that have long been out of print, a collection of political reporting from mainstream news sites, and several sites run by whistle-blowers looking to expose corporate and government corruption.


The dark web probably wouldn’t be nearly as successful if it wasn’t for the rise of cryptocurrency. Why? This type of virtual currency allows people to make transactions without knowing each other’s identity or location. This anonymity makes cryptocurrencies ideal for the dark web.

You might think that it’s safe to buy items from the dark web as long as you’re using a form of online currency that keeps you anonymous. But this isn’t necessarily the case. Remember, the anonymity of the dark web is attractive to scammers and criminals. There’s no guarantee that you won’t be scammed by thieves, even if you are using a virtual currency. Maybe the items you pay for won’t arrive. Or maybe the scammers will send you something completely different than what you ordered. Many of the sites on the dark web don’t come with much protection.

Black markets and hidden services

The dark web might be most notable for providing black markets that visitors can use to buy illicit drugs. Silk Road is a good example. This site was famed for the drugs visitors could find on it. The American Federal Bureau of Investigation shut down Silk Road in 2013. A new version of the site came online later that year but was also shut down. The founder of the site was arrested in late 2014 and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. AlphaBay was another popular online marketplace filled with illegal products. It was shut down in 2017.

Other criminal activities

The dark web has gained a reputation for other criminal activities, most notably pornography — including child pornography — and illegal firearm sales. There are also rumours that you can hire a hitman through the dark web. 

What’s our advice? If you do go on the dark web, be mindful where and what you click on or who you interact with, so you do not inadvertently view or access questionable or illegal content.

Is the dark web illegal?

Surfing the dark web is not illegal. Buying illegal drugs, firearms or sourcing a hitman from a site on the dark web or downloading child pornography is most certainly illegal.

Remember to stay safe

There are legitimate sites on the dark web but searching for illegal activities could be asking for trouble so be mindful what you are accessing if you visit the dark web.

Dark web browser

Tor is a popular browser that people use today to search the internet anonymously. It is also a popular browser for people who want to search the dark web. 

Tor stands for “the onion routing project,” and was developed by the U.S. Navy. It was made available to the public in 2004. To download this browser, go to torproject.org , however you’ll actually have to find the dark web sites that you want to search, though, and this remains tricky. 

Use a VPN

Consider purchasing a virtual private network — or VPN to help protect your privacy when you bank, shop or browse online. A VPN provides you with anonymity by creating a private network from a public internet connection. This prevents online criminals from eavesdropping on your Wi-Fi connection and intercepting any data you might be sending or receiving. With Norton Secure VPN  you can secure your online activities with bank-grade encryption to help ensure the information you send and receive is secure and private.

Browse carefully and never divulge any personal information

If you are visiting the dark web remember to be careful. Even if you are visiting this corner of the internet for legitimate reasons, it’s easy to unwittingly stumble upon some bad places. Never divulge any of your personal information and don’t do anything online that you wouldn’t do in real life.

Cyber threats have evolved, and so have we.

Norton 360™ with LifeLock™, all-in-one, comprehensive protection against viruses, malware, identity theft, online tracking and much, much more.

Try Norton 360 with Lifelock.

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Editorial note: Our articles provide educational information for you. Our offerings may not cover or protect against every type of crime, fraud, or threat we write about. Our goal is to increase awareness about Cyber Safety. Please review complete Terms during enrollment or setup. Remember that no one can prevent all identity theft or cybercrime, and that LifeLock does not monitor all transactions at all businesses. The Norton and LifeLock brands are part of Gen Digital Inc. 


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