The dark web is the World Wide Web content that exists on darknets: overlay networks that use the Internet but require specific software, configurations, or authorization to access.
When you think of the dark web, your brain likely conjures a nefarious place on the internet where you can buy a baby or fork out some Bitcoin to have your neighbor knocked off by a hitman. The dark web’s reputation is that of a lawless area, where Silk Road operated—the Wild West, if you will, of the internet.
For individuals living under oppressive regimes that block large parts of the internet or punish political dissent, the dark web is a lifeline that provides access to information and protection from persecution. In freer societies, it can be a critical whistle-blowing and communication tool that shields people from retribution or judgment in the workplace or community. Alternatively, it can simply deliver privacy and anonymity for those wary of how corporations and governments are tracking, using, and potentially monetizing their data.
On the flip side, the same privacy and anonymity that deliver protection from tyrants and targeted advertisements also make the dark web a springboard for crime. Some of the more prevalent illicit activities include arms trafficking, drug dealing, and the sharing of exploitative content—
In the late 1990s, two research organizations in the US Department of Defense drove efforts to develop an anonymized and encrypted network that would protect the sensitive communications of US spies. This secret network would not be known or accessible to ordinary internet surfers. And while the original clandestine intention was never fully realized, some of the researchers saw a different value proposition at hand—launching a nonprofit focused on anonymity for human rights and privacy activists.
Enter the Tor network, short for “The Onion Router,” given the many layers of encryption that guard passing information. Tor lives on the fringe of the internet and serves as the underlying technology of the dark web—a collection of hidden sites inaccessible via a regular browser and not indexed by search engines such as Google. The Tor browser—a free download—is all you need to unlock this hidden corner of the web where privacy is paramount. Radical anonymity, however, casts a long shadow.
The truth about the dark web is that in addition to offering extreme privacy and protection from the surveillance of authoritarian governments, it facilitates a growing underground marketplace that sophisticated criminals use to traffic drugs, stolen identities, child pornography, and other illicit products and services. And with untraceable cryptocurrency as the primary means of payment, close cooperation between law enforcement, financial institutions, and regulators around the world is required to tighten the screws on nefarious activity.