What is the dark web and how do you access it?

A woman uses her laptop to read about the dark web.

The dark web is a part of the internet consisting of hidden sites that aren’t indexed by conventional search engines.

When you envision the dark web, it may conjure up images of hackers trading stolen personal identifiable information or drug dealers advertising their products online—and that’s not completely wrong. While the dark web can be a helpful tool for sourcing legitimate products or ensuring private communication, it’s also a hotspot for illegal internet activity.

When data breaches happen, your information can end up for sale on the dark web — which is why specialised software features like Norton 360 Deluxe Dark Web Monitoring are invaluable when it comes to protecting your identity online. Here’s a guide that will help you learn about the dark web, the sites that populate it, and how you can visit it safely using the added protection of a VPN and antivirus software.

What is the dark web?

A graphic showcases a definition of the dark web.

The term “dark web" sounds ominous, and there's a reason for that. The dark web is a part of the internet that's made up of hidden sites you can't find through conventional web browsers. Instead, you must rely on the Tor browser—a web browser that anonymises your web traffic within its internal network—and search engines designed specifically to unearth these hidden sites.

Dark web sites use encryption software so their visitors and owners can remain anonymous—it’s why the dark web is home to so much illegal activity. However, this side of the internet isn’t reserved for criminals. Over 2.7 million active users browse the dark web every day, and many do so for legitimate reasons.

Benefits of using the dark web

The top 3 legitimate reasons people use the dark web are anonymity, security, and curiosity.

The dark web has a bad rap, but there are benefits to using it. For example, dissidents who fear political prosecution from their governments might use the dark web to communicate with each other. As many as 70.79% of users claim to use the Tor browser for anonymity, 62.28% said they use it for additional security, and 27.07% used it out of curiosity about the dark web.

Because there’s no way to track users, communicating over the dark web ensures the utmost security and privacy. This is integral for people like:

  • Journalists and whistleblowers working together to expose corruption at corporations and government agencies
  • Citizens of oppressive or authoritarian governments needing to access news sources critical of their governments that have been blocked by traditional web browsers
  • Political protestors wanting to remain anonymous while protesting the actions of their government
  • Users seeking medical advice without revealing their identity
  • Journalists interviewing sources who must remain anonymous

Everyday internet users can also reap the benefits of the dark web. Anonymity and added security can be useful for activities like:

  • Accessing free academic research
  • Using ad-free search engines
  • Accessing geo-blocked content
  • Securing cryptocurrency wallets
  • Using social media without government monitoring
  • Finding niche content, like anonymous chess games or blogs on secret underground tunnels
  • Accessing anonymous chat boards

Risks and threats of the dark web

The dark web may be safe in some cases—think legitimate content—and not in others. Only about 6.7% of global users use the dark web for malicious purposes, but it’s smart to be selective about the websites you access.

Here are a few safety issues to consider.

  • Criminals: There’s a chance you will find websites run by criminals. Beyond selling illegal goods and services, they may seek to exploit you and steal from you.
  • Breaking the law: You can be prosecuted for things you do on the dark web. It’s important to behave in an appropriate and legal manner.
  • Suspicious links: If you click on any links, you may be taken to material you might not want to see. It’s also possible that clicking a link or downloading a file could infect your device with malware.
  • Law enforcement: Law enforcement officials operate on the dark web to catch people engaged in criminal activity. Like others on the dark web, law enforcement can do their work under a cloak of anonymity.
  • Viruses: Some websites could infect your devices with viruses, and there are a lot of different types of viruses to watch out for. Remember to never download anything from websites you don’t trust.
  • Hackers: You can find hacker forums on the dark web, and you can hire computer hackers to do illegal activities. Not surprisingly, a lot of these people would be willing to hack your devices, too.
  • Webcam hijacking: A website on the dark web may try to get a remote administration tool—also known as a “RAT”—onto your device. That can lead to someone hijacking your webcam, essentially letting them see what you’re up to through your device’s camera lens. It’s a smart practice to cover your webcam with a piece of paper or tape if you’re not using it.

If you decide to venture into the dark web, be sure to educate yourself on the potential risks and dangers. Make sure you install and run strong security software on your computer and devices to help ensure the privacy and security of your data.

What can you find on the dark web?

You can find legitimate products such as basketball shoes, apparel, research papers, and other items on the dark web. Of course, you can also find plenty of illegal items such as hacked streaming media accounts, stolen personal identifiable information, credit card account numbers, firearms, and drugs, too.

What can you buy on the dark web? Plenty, though much of it you probably shouldn’t be purchasing. 

When you’re surfing the darkest corners of the web, you might find people selling:

  • Stolen credit card numbers, personal identifiable information, and other private information
  • Drugs
  • Firearms
  • Designer knockoffs
  • Pornography
  • Stolen account login information
  • Fake diplomas to prominent higher education schools
  • Fake passports
  • Malware

But, again, the dark web isn’t just for criminals. You may also come across online versions of books that have long been out of print, collections of political reporting from mainstream news sites, and sites run by whistleblowers looking to expose corporate and government corruption.

Is it illegal to access the dark web?

It is not illegal to visit the dark web. But you can face criminal charges if you use the dark web to sell or purchase illegal firearms, drugs, pornography, stolen passwords, hacked credit card account numbers, or other items.

Dark web vs. deep web

The terms “dark web” and “deep web” are often used interchangeably, but they aren’t the same.

An illustration showcases the differences between the surface web vs. the deep web vs. the dark web.

The deep web is also hidden, in a way. But it’s home to benign sites, such as:

  • Password-protected email accounts
  • Intranets run by businesses
  • Consumers’ online bank account pages
  • Government databases
  • Private sites that require users to type in a login name and password

For instance, if you wanted to search a public library catalogue to find a book, you couldn’t type the title into your browser’s search bar and expect Google to return a meaningful result for your library. That level of information would be located in the deep web.

Think of the dark web, then, as a small subset of the deep web that regular browsers can’t access. When you access the dark web, you’re not surfing the interconnected servers you regularly interact with. Instead, everything stays internal on the Tor network, which provides security and privacy to everyone equally.

How to access the dark web

Getting to the dark web is actually a lot easier than you might think—navigating it is a different story. Here’s a quick tutorial on how to safely access the dark web and tips on how to use it.

Download the Tor browser

Many who access the dark web do so by first connecting to it with the Tor (an acronym for the “The Onion Router”) browser. Developed by the U.S. Navy and made public in 2004, Tor is the most popular dark web browser because of its unrivaled security and privacy.

The Tor browser differs from others such as Chrome or Firefox because it does not take the most direct route from your device to the web. Instead, Tor uses a random set of encrypted servers known as nodes to keep users and sites anonymous.

To download this browser, go to torproject.org. Once you download Tor, you can connect to the dark web. However, Tor won’t find any sites on the dark web for you. You’ll actually have to find the dark websites that you want to search on your own.

Use a dark web search engine

Sites on the dark web don’t come with easy-to-remember URLs, and many disappear suddenly. A dark web search engine can help you surf sites on the Tor browser.

A search engine is not the same as a browser. While a browser lets you connect to the internet, a search engine is what you use to search the internet once you get on it.

While you’ll use Tor to access the dark web, you’ll need to use a search engine to find its sites once you get on it. Some of the more popular dark web search engines include:

  • DuckDuckGo: This is the Tor browser's default search engine. DuckDuckGo's main selling point is its privacy features. Because it does not track users, people can use it to browse the dark web anonymously.
  • Torch: This search engine also doesn't track users. Torch claims to be the oldest search engine on the dark web.
  • Ahmia.fi: This search engine lets you see links to dark web sites using a traditional browser like Chrome, Firefox, or Microsoft Edge. To access those sites, you'll still need the Tor browser, though.
  • DarkSearch: DarkSearch claims to index Tor pages each day, surfing the dark web 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Know how dark web websites work

Websites on the dark web set themselves apart with a unique domain name: .onion. Websites accessible through the Tor browser end in this domain name, just as sites reached through traditional browsers such as Chrome and Firefox end with domain names like .com, .org, .gov, and .edu.

The names of dark web pages are unusual, too, and can make it difficult to find them. Instead of site names that are easy to memorise, such as CNN.com or Google.com, Tor sites are made up of a random series of numbers and letters. For instance, the website of the Torch dark web browser is cnkj6nippubgycuj.onion, while the Tor website for DuckDuckGo is 3g2upl4pq6kufc4m.onion.

Surface web URL Dark web URL
CNN.com qmifwf762qftydprw2adbg7hs2mkunac5xrz3cb5busaflji3rja5lid.onion
Facebook.com facebookwkhpilnemxj7asaniu7vnjjbiltxjqhye3mhbshg7kx5tfyd.onion
DuckDuckGo.com https://duckduckgogg42xjoc72x3sjasowoarfbgcmvfimaftt6twagswzczad.onion/.

Another challenge of finding dark websites? They don’t often last. Many sites go defunct fairly quickly, either because they are shut down for illegal activity, their founders' close shop after getting bored, or they move to a new address and name to help avoid detection.

Tips for navigating the dark web

Just like when navigating the surface web, the dark web has similar risks that should be taken into account when protecting your personal information.

Consider using a VPN

For an added layer of protection, consider purchasing a virtual private network, or VPN. A VPN provides you with anonymity by creating a private network from a public internet connection.

VPNs let you mask your location and prevent online breadcrumbs from leading back to you. This stops online criminals from eavesdropping on your Wi-Fi connection and intercepting any data you might be sending or receiving.

Be cautious

Again, be careful when browsing the dark web. Even though the dark web is touted as being private and secure, there are still risks involved. Just like the surface web, the dark web is riddled with scams, phishing sites, and malware designed to exploit new users who may not know any better.

Even if you are visiting this corner of the internet for legitimate reasons, it’s easy to stumble upon some bad places. Here are some extra precautions to follow:

  • Don’t divulge any of your personal information. Because there’s very little use of SSL certificates on the dark web, you won’t be able to tell if a website is genuine or not.
  • Be wary of publicly posted onion URLs. If you can’t get a recommendation from someone you trust, seek multiple sources to verify the URL.
  • Avoid clicking on unknown links. Offensive material may be just a click away.
  • Don’t do anything online that you wouldn’t do in real life. The dark web may be a haven for criminal activity, but law enforcement and government agencies may still be watching every move.

Explore the dark web at your own discretion

If you plan on venturing into the dark side of the internet, take added security measures to ensure private information like your passwords, bank details, and credit card numbers are protected. Powerful antivirus software with advanced Dark Web Monitoring Features like Norton 360 Deluxe can help keep your internet browsing private and secure.

FAQ about the dark web

Still curious about the dark web? We answered a few of the most frequently asked questions for better clarity.

How big is the dark web?

The dark web is quite small when compared with the internet as a whole. No one truly knows the size of the dark web, but some estimate that it accounts for just 5% of the total internet.

When was the dark web created?

Many cite March 20, 2000, as the birthdate of the dark web. That's when Freenet, a peer-to-peer sharing network focused on anonymity, was launched.

Who created the dark web?

Surprisingly, the U.S. government is usually cited as the creator of the dark web to allow spies to communicate with each other anonymously.

Clare Stouffer
  • Clare Stouffer
  • Gen employee
Clare Stouffer, a Gen employee, is a writer and editor for the company’s blogs. She covers various topics in cybersecurity.

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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