What Is the Dark Web? Everything You Need To Know

The dark web has benefits for people looking for ultimate online privacy, but it also has criminals lurking around the corner.
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The dark web is a part of the internet that is hidden from public view. It's accessible only by using special software, and it has gained notoriety for being a hub for cybercriminals.

The Onion Router, known as Tor, is one way to access the dark web, and it was originally designed to communicate with American intelligence officers. To this day, U.S. federal agencies still help fund the Tor Project to support user anonymity and bypass censorship.

The dark web is often associated with illegal activities, but it's not necessarily illegal to use it. What you do on the dark web determines whether you are participating in a crime or not. Keep reading to understand what the dark web contains, how you can safely use it, and how to protect yourself from cybercrimes originating from the dark web.

In this article
Layers of the web
Surface web
Deep web
Dark web
How does the dark web work?
What can be found on the dark web?
Dark web data
Dark web services
Dark versions of surface websites
Internet forums and chat boards
Whistleblowing websites
What are the dangers of the dark web?
Malware infections
What to do if your information is on the dark web
Dark web FAQs
Bottom line

Layers of the web

To truly understand the dark web, you need to know about the surface web and deep web. The three different layers of the world wide web classify what is kept confidential, public, or anonymous.

Surface web

The surface web is something you easily access every day. In fact, you're using it right now as you read this. The surface web is made up of public-facing websites that you can easily access by using browsers such as Google Chrome or Firefox. Sites with .org, .com, or .net fall into the surface web category.

Essentially, if the webpage can show up on search results or if you enter the correct URL, then it's considered part of the surface web. Search engines, such as Google, Yahoo, and Bing, index websites and then show them as part of a search result.

Surprisingly, the surface web only makes up the tip of the iceberg of web content. The deep web actually makes up the large majority of the internet.

Deep web

The deep web isn't as easily accessible as the surface web. Although you can still use your regular internet browser to use the deep web, you will also need login credentials or other authentication methods to fully access these webpages.

A good example is when you log in to your online banking account. You can use your web browser to go to your bank's website and find the login page. But if you don't have the correct login credentials, you can't access the page showing your bank account information. It's essentially hidden by a door, and you need the right key to unlock it.

The deep web also includes databases, internal networks for organizations, and anything else a web search engine can't index.

Most of the deep web has a safe intent and is largely meant to keep personal or private data secure. But there is another part of the deep web that provides even more anonymity.

Dark web

The dark web prides itself as a place of anonymity and privacy. It has a bad reputation because criminals often take advantage of this level of invisibility and use the dark web to carry out illegal activities.

But not all people who use the dark web are necessarily criminals. Some people use the dark web simply because it doesn't track any internet activity. This is essential for people living in areas with censorship so they can access blocked surface websites without fear of being traced. It's also ideal for privacy-conscious individuals who want more control of their online data and don't want their browsing history exposed.

The dark web isn't necessarily a bad thing in itself, but it can be used by criminals to host websites with illegal activity.

Surface web Deep web Dark web
How big is it? Approximately 5% of internet content Approximately 90% of internet content Approximately 5% of internet content
What’s found there? Anything indexed and searchable, including:
  • Blogs
  • News sites
  • Social media pages
  • E-commerce sites
  • Company websites
Anything that isn't indexed and usually needs login credentials. This can include:
  • Email inboxes
  • Bank accounts
  • Databases
  • Legal files
Internet content that needs special software to access. You can find:
  • Black markets and illegal websites
  • Private communication forums
  • Tor-encrypted websites
How accessible is it? Highly accessible by the public Can only gain access if you provide the correct login credentials and possibly two-factor authentication Requires special software to access

How does the dark web work?

The dark web uses three factors to create a trackless environment:

  1. Webpage indexing isn't allowed
  2. Virtual traffic funnels created by randomized network infrastructure
  3. Uses a unique registry operator

You may believe only law enforcement or highly sophisticated criminals have access to the dark web. But it's actually freely available to anyone.

The easiest way to access the dark web is to download the Tor browser, which will direct your traffic through the Tor network. You can use it just like any other browser and access other surface web and deep web websites. If you're looking for trouble, you will still need to put in the effort to find black markets and illegal websites.

For example, the Silk Road existed between 2011 and 2013 and it was a place where illegal drugs and other illicit goods and services were distributed. It was eventually shut down by law enforcement agencies, and founder Ross Ulbricht is currently serving a life sentence for running the operation.

As with any browser, users should take precautions to ensure they are proactively protecting themselves from cyberattacks. However, this is especially true while using Tor because the dark web browser is unregulated. Here are a couple of tips if you want to use Tor:
  1. Turn on a virtual private network (VPN) before using Tor. This stops your internet service provider and anyone else from realizing you have downloaded and used Tor.
  2. Use antivirus software to continuously scan your device to ensure any malware is caught and removed quickly.

What can be found on the dark web?

Although you could use the dark web to access the surface web and deep web, there are also sites you specifically can't find with a regular internet browser.

You'll need to use the Tor browser or another anonymous browser to access the dark web, also known as the darknet. You'll also need to know the onion links: a URL with a random string of letters and numbers instead of an easy-to-remember URL.

There are link directories to help you find dark web websites. However, sometimes the links don't work or may lead to malicious websites. You could also use a dark web search engine to find Tor-encrypted websites. But no matter what, always consider the risks before going to a dark website.

If you do find an authentic dark website, what will you discover there? Here's a quick list of what you could potentially find on the dark web.

Dark web data

Cybercriminals often cause data breaches at organizations in an attempt to steal personal data and then sell that data on the dark web. These dark web marketplaces are a prime spot for other criminals to sell and buy sensitive information. Some examples and their selling price include the below:

  • Credit card details: $15-$120
  • Verified cryptocurrency accounts: $90-$400
  • Hacked Gmail accounts: $65

Dark web services

Beyond data, criminals also gather on dark marketplaces for other illegal services such as forgery, malware, and other online attacks. Some examples and their selling price include the following:

  • Forged European Union passports: $3,800
  • Malware per 1,000 installs: $45-$5,500
  • A distributed-denial-of-service (DDOS) attack on an unprotected website for one week: $450

Dark versions of surface websites

Many people use the dark web to bypass censorship imposed by their countries. This often means news sites are blocked, but anonymous browsers give people access to surface web websites. Many organizations create an onion link version of their website to share on the dark web. It allows people to gain access to international news organizations and ultimately supports freedom of speech.

Internet forums and chat boards

The dark web is host to several chat boards and community forums. This is often a place for illegal trading or other criminal activity. There are hackers’ forums where you can find stolen data and buy it.

Whistleblowing websites

Whistleblowers, journalists, and activists may use the dark web to share leaked data. Exposing a company or government on Tor can make it harder for people to track who leaked the information. For example, Edward Snowden used the dark web to send information to journalists and whistleblow the National Security Agency.

What are the dangers of the dark web?

Even if you are using the dark web to bypass censorship or gain online privacy, some threats are lurking there. Knowing the risks can help you stay prepared for threats. Let's review some of the dangers of the dark web.

Malware infections

Malicious software, aka malware, is prevalent on the dark web. Although criminals can buy malware on the dark web, there's also the threat of it infecting your computer just like any other suspicious link you click. Because the dark web isn't regulated, there aren't any safeguards to try and protect users.

You may get exposed to malware infections such as:

  • Botnets
  • Ransomware
  • Phishing attempts


Because there are many illegal marketplaces on the dark web, it's an ideal place for criminals to also run scams. They may offer a service or product and then not deliver after you've paid. Because the dark web makes it difficult to trace the criminal, they can often get away with their scam.

Dark community forums can also be a place where you can be subjected to phishing scams. Phishing may attempt to steal your identity or take over your online accounts.

The best way to avoid scams is to avoid clicking on suspicious links, never give away your personal information, and try to validate a dark website before visiting it. Even if you've authenticated a dark website, it doesn't mean there aren't scams in existence. Be aware of any red flags of a potential scam.

What to do if your information is on the dark web

You could use dark web scanners to see if your information is on the dark web. Keep in mind though, dark web scanners have difficulty tracking the entire dark web. Your information may be on the dark web even if a scanner couldn't find it.

Here are a few tips on what to do if your information is on the dark web or you had your data leaked in a security breach:

  • Add two-factor authentication to your accounts if you haven't enabled it yet.
  • Scan your devices for viruses to ensure a hacker hasn't already accessed your network.
  • Change your passwords. You can use a password manager to keep track of your login credentials and ensure you are using a unique, complex password for all of your online accounts.
  • Check your credit reports for any signs of fraudulent activity.
  • Contact your bank and credit card companies to set up fraud alerts or put a freeze on your accounts.
  • Review financial statements to confirm all purchases are authorized.
  • Report any cybercrime to the relevant law enforcement agencies.
  • Consider using a dark web monitoring service to find your sensitive data on the dark web. Keep in mind, the nature of the dark web makes it difficult to track all the sites, but it could help you discover your data has been exposed.

Dark web FAQs


What is on the dark web?

The dark web contains illegal marketplaces for selling and buying stolen personal data and harmful materials. You can also access surface websites such as news sites and blogs, as many dark web users are looking for online privacy or to bypass censorship.


Is the dark web illegal?

The dark web is illegal if you use it for criminal activity. Using the Tor browser is legal in many countries. But if you use it to purchase stolen data or download harmful material, then you are participating in illicit activity. It's also important to note that some countries ban Tor to limit access to information and prevent bypassing censorship.


Is the dark web dangerous?

The dark web can be dangerous if you don't take precautions. Evaluate situations carefully before you visit dark sites or download any files. If you're not careful about what you access, you do increase your risk of falling victim to phishing scams or downloading malware.

Bottom line

Although the dark web can provide a haven for people looking for privacy or bypassing censorship laws, it has been exploited by criminals to participate in illegal activities. You can use the dark web safely, but you should deploy proper cybersecurity measures.

Turn on a VPN before you download or use the Tor browser to mask your IP address and prevent your internet service provider or government agencies from noticing your online activity. You'll also benefit from employing antivirus software to continuously check your device for malware. Finally, take precautions before you access dark websites or interact with anyone you meet there. You could fall victim to a phishing scam or unintentionally download a virus.

Preventing identity theft is the most proactive way of stopping your personal data from being sold on the dark web. However, stopping your personal information from appearing on the dark web is not guaranteed, as it can depend on if organizations handle your data securely.

So what do you do if your identity is stolen or leaked on the dark web? You can take measures to stop harm to your credit, finances, or other personal accounts. Check out our identity theft protection guide to learn more.

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Author Details
Sara J. Nguyen is a freelance writer specializing in cybersecurity. She aims to help people protect their data while enjoying technology. She has written about online privacy and tech for over 5 years for several organizations. When she's not writing about the latest cybersecurity trends, you can find her on LinkedIn.