An Introduction to the Deep Web and Dark Web (aka DarkNet)

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The dark web
Understand the dark web and how it can be used in investigations.

What is the Dark Web?

The term Dark Web and it’s synonyms such as Darknet, Onionland, the Other Internet and others have been getting a lot of press these days. Constant reports of data breaches, identity theft and state-sponsored hacking fill our daily headlines. Although many people have heard the terms, few actually understand what it means. The purpose of this article is to explain what it is, what types of content you can find there, who uses it, how to access it, and some of its pros and cons.

So, what is it? The Dark Web is actually a subsection of the Deep Web that consists of networks of all sizes, including large networks run by corporations and small peer-to-peer networks run by individuals. The Deep Web is part of the internet that is not indexed by search engines. These two terms are often used incorrectly to mean the same thing. Not everything on the Deep Web is “bad” or illegal.

Content is not indexed by search engines for a variety of reasons, such as:

  • The owner of the content doesn’t want the site to be found via normal search engines like Google, Bing and Yahoo. They want to keep the information “private” and secret and free from monitoring and control by others.
  • The search engines, usually via their algorithms and sometimes via manual action, choose not to index a site due to the illegal nature of the content.

The darknet uses a layered encryption and does not use Domain Name Servers (DNS) or IP addresses. This makes it difficult to track the identity and locations of users, as their data is routed through a large number of servers. Essentially, a user’s communications are bounced around to different servers around the world to help keep them private. The Tor browser (described below) anonymizes the origin of your traffic, and it encrypts everything inside the Tor network, but it can’t encrypt your traffic between the Tor network and the final destination. If you are communicating sensitive information, be sure to use HTTPS or other end-to-end encryption and authentication.

What Types of Content Can be Found on the Dark Web?

A wide variety of content can be found on the deep web. Some speculate that the deep web is 500 times as large at the “regular” web. Some of the broad categories of content that may be found there include:

  • Blogs – People who want to express their personal view and opinions, but don’t want to be monitored or held to a certain etiquette choose to host their blog on these networks.
  • Books – Books in the form of ebooks with information on how to make things, how to hack certain things, where to find information, etc.
  • Chat – People who want to ensure total anonymity in discussing their interests, political views, sexual preference and more.
  • Counterfeit goods and services –
  • Currency exchange services – Services for trading and exchanging, and even laundering digital currencies
  • Directories – Directories of websites and other content to help users navigate through the vast amount of information and content available in various place.
  • Discussion forums – The forums are a particularly popular aspect of the communities due to the encryption and anonymous participation they offer. Many of the forums are used to exchange and sell illegal information and services.
  • Drugs – Forums and marketplaces are used to buy and sell drug for recreational and medical purposes.
  • Fraud – One can find information on how to commit various types of fraud, scams and schemes. In addition, many of the sites in this space are, in fact, frauds themselves and are designed to take advantage of or steal from users.
  • Gambling – Resources for gamblers, sports betting
  • Guns and other weapons
  • Hacking services – Hackers advertise their services on the hidden part of the web to maintain anonymity
  • Hosting services – The Invisible Internet Project (I2P) allows websites to be hosted anonymously.
  • Marketplaces – These are often used for buying and selling illegal goods and services, weapons, software exploits and hacking services.
  • Pornography – This is one of the “darker” aspects of such networks, which draw interest from those with questionable interests. Even though the porn sites exist on the unindexed portion of the deep web, they still draw the interest of law enforcement who seeks to stop sexual predators and pedophiles.
  • Search tools
  • Social Media – Social networks are beginning to emerge that attempt to address the privacy concerns of the major public social networks such as FaceBook and Twitter.
  • Terrorism – Terrorists use private networks to distribute recruiting paraphernalia,
  • Whistleblower content and resources –
  • Wiki – Wikis allow multiple users to collaborate on a website at the same time. Wikis in the deep space are often used by activist organizations who are spread out geographically so they can share and compile information.

How to Access the Dark Web: The TOR Project

To access the deep web and DarkNet sites, users much go through networks such as TOR (an acronym for The Onion Router). Sites accessible through this network have the .onion domain. The TOR network is a group of servers operated by volunteers whose goal is to maintain privacy and security on the web.

Who Uses TOR?

A wide variety of people use TOR for a wide variety of reasons. Individuals who simply want to use browse the internet anonymously, without their activity, discussions or behavior being monitored or tracked.

Media reporters and journalists use it to communicate with anonymous resources for stories they are working on. Sometimes, sources don’t want their identity reveal, even to reporters who are “on their side”, so they use the hidden part of the web to communicate.

Law enforcement and government intelligence agencies use it to search for criminals, monitor criminal activity, search for stolen goods and for conducting sting operations. Due to the nature and design of the networks, conducting any type of surveillance on the deep parts of the web is difficult and time consuming.

How to Download the TOR Browser

To download the TOR web browser, go to https://www.torproject.org/index.html.en and click on the Download button. The software is open source and can be downloaded for free. Tor Browser lets you use Tor on Microsoft Windows, Apple MacOS, or GNU/Linux without needing to install any software. It can run off a USB flash drive, comes with a pre-configured web browser to protect your anonymity, and is self-contained (portable).

Installation instructions and screenshots are available on the website listed above, if you need any help. There is also a list of frequently asked questions and even a help desk if you need to ask a question. You’ll even find a place to sign up for their newsletter and learn how to make a donation.

How can Private Investigators Leverage the DeepNet and DarkNet?

As a private investigator, both the DeepNet and DarkNet offer an entirely new realm of data and information that is far too vast to be ignored. The vast majority of the general public doesn’t even know that it exists, much less the types of information that might be hidden there and how to go about finding it. People hire private investigators to uncover hidden and difficult to find information. So, understanding how to access this vast underground world is quickly becoming of great importance in the investigation industry. In general, a private investigator should:

  • Understand the types of content that can be found
  • Understand how to go about browsing, navigating and searching for information
  • Understand the risks of doing so

More Information

For more detailed information, visit the Wikipedia page at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dark_web.

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