Stepping into the Dark Web: A Journey into the Depths of the Internet

The universe is big. Alright, that's a profound albeit kind of a dumb understatement. The universe is truly enormous. Yet, all of the observable universe that we can perceive with our eyes, telescopes, and most advanced instruments is only 5% of what makes up the universe. According to NASA, the overwhelming remainder of the universe is dark matter (27%) and dark energy (68%).

The internet is like that too. The 56.5 billion websites that are indexed by Google today are less than 1% of the actual internet. The rest of the internet, the other 99%, is the deep web. Now, not all of the deep web is the dark web. Much of the deep web is online content that is simply inaccessible to search engine spiders. This deep web includes your webmail, online banking, your company's private intranet, anything behind a paywall, etc.

And then there's the dark web.

Diving into the Depths

I first started thinking about the dark web when I found out that Brave had a Tor (which stands for The Onion Routing) Private Browser built-in. This feature is really neat. For our safety, most other browsers won't even allow us to go to the dark web.

A beautiful red onion--a great visual for the .onion websites that comprise the so called dark web.

Figure 1. "whole onion" by Darwin Bell is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Here, see for yourself. Click the following link: http://www.propub3r6espa33w.onion/.

While I hope that you thought twice before clicking some random link to an "onion" website (whatever the heck that is), I promise you that this link simply takes us to the Pulitzer-prize-winning ProPublica and should be perfectly harmless.

I'm willing to wager, however, that if you did click this link, you ran into one of the following errors:

  • "This site can’t be reached / Check if there is a typo in www.propub3r6espa33w.onion" for Google Chrome.
  • "This site can’t be reached / Check if there is a typo in www.propub3r6espa33w.onion" for Microsoft Edge.
  • "Hmm. We’re having trouble finding that site. / We can’t connect to the server at www.propub3r6espa33w.onion" for Mozilla Firefox.

Of course, we all have converted to Brave, so when we hit the "Requests to the server have been blocked by an extension. / Try disabling your extensions," we circumvented this error by simply hitting the purple Open in Tor button.[1] Now the question is just because we can plunge into the dark web, should we?

Here Be Dragons

While even on the seemingly safe surface of the internet can have dangers all its own, when we dive down to the depths of the dark web, we might unearth some truly terrifying parts of the web. The Hidden Wiki offers drugs, erotica, and financial services from "paypal accounts for sale" to "Manipulate Cashapp transfers."

Here on the dark web, we can get guns, hire hackers, and purchase passports. In 2016, researchers Daniel Moore and Thomas Rid managed to sample over 5,000 onion websites—and of these over 50% were criminal services, "including drugs, illicit finance and pornography involving violence, children and animals." Here is the dark web that we've all been warned about, but did you notice that these illicit activities make up only half of the dark web. So, what about the other half?

A Good Use for a Dark Web

It turns out the dark web does a lot of good.[2] Like ProPublica, there's an onion website for the New York Times, Deutsche Welle, and the BBC. Furthermore, the Washington Post has an onion website they call Secure Drop. This website "is a discreet way for readers to share messages and materials with our journalists. It offers greater security and anonymity than conventional e-mail and Web forms," helping journalists protect their sources. As freedom of the press is such a seminal right to a healthy democracy, this protection is invaluable.

This protection should not come as a surprise as the entire onion routing was created in 1995 at the U.S. Naval Research Lab so that users could create obscured internet connections even while their network was being monitored. The dark web was designed to give users as much privacy as possible. For any revolutionary in a repressive government, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency has a dark version of their website, including their iconic World Factbook.

There is even an onion version of Facebook. While it seems almost antisocial for the social network to be on the dark web, remember that North Korea, Iran, and China all block Facebook, so it makes sense why we might want to socialize in the dark. After all, accessing social media via "Tor was an instrumental tool during the Arab Spring beginning in late 2010."

Dark Thoughts

From the safety and security of where I am, it is easy to imagine that the dark web is a wretched hive of scum and villainy. However, as we saw, there are many good reasons to have its important to remember that the same protections that shield criminal activity also protects:

  • Journalists and their sources
  • Military and federal agents
  • Human-rights and political activists

These are just some of the legitimate users of the Tor browser and onion websites. And the best way to protect these individuals is to download and use the Tor Browser. As the Electronic Freedom Foundation highlights, "In fact, the more people use Tor, the safer you are."

 

 

[1] It makes me so happy that there is an onion site to download the Brave browser.

[2] I even heard that there was a chess club on the dark web, and the idea of playing chess on the dark web is the inspiration for this article.