In mainstream circles, the dark web is often broadly painted as the seedy underbelly of the internet, a criminal paradise where you can purchase anything your heart desires. Drugs, stolen credit cards, human trafficking, it all happens on the dark web – so they say. If you believe some of the stuff out there about the dark web, you might think that the most depraved illegal content is only a click away on the dark web.
However, these portraits of the dark web are not entirely accurate. It’s true that the dark web hosts a lot of illegal activity, but it’s not as easily found as you might believe. We’ll touch more on that later, for now let’s take a simple look at what the dark web is for, and who might use it.
A brief history of the dark web
The dark web, or rather the technology behind it (Onion routing), was actually developed by the US Naval Research Lab and DARPA in the 90s, to enable spies to exchange information anonymously, as well as the storage of classified information.
However, the idea of an anonymous network that only the government could use posed its own security risks. The most effective way for the government to anonymize its Net communications is to make Tor available to anyone and everyone. An anonymity network used only by the government would not work, because in the event of a breach, the infiltrators would know 100% for certain that it was government communication they were intercepting.
And so once the “dark web” became public, people started using it for all manners of things to hide their online activity – some of it criminal, but some of it benevolent as well.
While the dark web enables criminals to hide their activity, it also allows for journalists and whistleblowers to expose totalitarian regimes, for example. And it allows for ordinary citizens to surf the web without being tracked by cookies and personalized advertisements, for example, so you can do a bit of price-checking on Amazon without your Facebook being full of ads for similar products the next day.
Protecting your identity on the dark web
Here’s where things get a bit tricky and complex to explain. Because with a headline like “protecting your identity on the dark web”, you might be led to believe that simply opening the Tor browser makes you a big, blinking neon-sign target for criminals, like moths to a flame.
That’s a bit dramatic, and hardly true. There are certain security precautions you should take while using Tor browser, but in all honesty, they’re much the same security precautions you’d take on the normal web, for any privacy-minded individual.
What primarily concerns people about the dark web is how often we hear about password and credit card information dumps. This is true, the dark web is where criminals like to dump their stolen information, usually after they can’t get any ransom money for it from the company they’ve stolen the information from. Or for proving to their criminal peers what they’re capable of.
Dark web monitoring tools are useful because they scour the dark web and can alert you if any of your personally identifiable information has been leaked in a public dump. Security practices like using strong passwords, disabling website scripts, and registering for websites with throwaway emails are great practices, so dark web monitoring tools are an “incase of” type of thing that are good to have.
The dark web’s illegal stuff is hard to find
Now as to the availability of illegal content on the dark web, it’s certainly there. There is no denying that there are dark web marketplaces for drugs and child pornography, but you don’t find them in a few simple clicks. In most cases, entry to these illegal marketplaces is given by invitation only.
It’s like a mafia poker game happening in a dark basement – most people don’t accidentally stumble across them. You need to be given the location and door password, and that’s kind of how those illegal dark web markets operate. Much of the illegal content that is easily found on the dark web are in fact honeypot websites set up by government agencies.
In truth, there’s a lot more illegal activity happening on the normal web. For example, the Internet Watch Foundation found 31,266 URLs that contained child pornography in 2016. Only 51 of those websites were hosted on the dark web.
Despite its reputation, the dark web isn’t as scary as mainstream media depicts. Using Tor browser is a legitimate way of preventing advertisement companies from tracking you, or getting past oppressive government firewalls. It just takes a bit of common-sense security practices to remain safe on the dark web, and really, those security practices are the same as you should already be doing on the normal web.