Dodgy, wicked, dangerous: The image of the Darknet is, as the name describes it: dark. Anyone who talks about it usually only knows it from hearsay and thinks of a swamp of criminal activities and illegal business. But is the dark web really as bad as its reputation suggests? We wanted to know more about it and took a closer look at the virtual realm of shadows.
In order to understand the structures of the internet, one needs to know the difference between clear web, deep web, and dark web. All three are part of the WWW (World Wide Web), but at different levels. Most people only use the surface of this network, the Clear Web.
Thinking of the Internet as a big city, this bright web includes all places that are open to the public, such as parks, shops, and attractions. You can control them with any normal browser and they are also usually listed in every search engine.
However, as in any city, there are also areas on the web that require an invitation, an ID card, or a key in order to be able to enter them – for example, private clubs, offices, theaters, or apartments.
In the World Wide Web, these places are part of the Deep Web. These include intranets and company networks, databases from universities and research institutes, and internal pages from government agencies. You won’t find these pages using the classic search engines, but you can call them up at any time with a normal browser, as long as you know the addresses.
The pages on the Darknet, on the other hand, can neither be found by a normal browser nor by a classic search engine. In our imaginary city, the dark web and its depths could be described as the neighborhoods that are best avoided at night and scary even during the day. The no-go areas, where things are exciting but also dangerous. In these places, people meet for harmless, anonymous exchanges, but also shy rabble for criminal activities.
The Darknet is an isolated network, a peer-to-peer overlay network in which all participants establish an encrypted connection with each other, but manually and not automatically, as is the case with regular networks. The Darknet pages are also called Hidden Services because they cannot be found with normal browsers.
If you are on the Darknet, all data traffic is encrypted. The IP address, which otherwise makes users transparent and traceable, also becomes invisible. This ensures security and anonymity but also makes surfing a bit slower.
But how do you get to this dark side if search engines and normal browsers do not know the dark web? The path is easier than you might think. All you need is an internet connection and the Tor browser software package, which is also the tool of choice for anonymous surfing on the Clear Web.
Tor is the abbreviation of “The Onion Router” and means “the onion router”. The name results from the functionality of the browser. To ensure anonymity, Tor first routes each data request via randomly selected computers, so-called nodes, before it finds its way to the Internet via an end node, the exit node.
Tor always encrypts data multiple times, using the onion skin principle. Each computer involved in data transport decrypts one layer. The highlight: If someone actually spies on the data flow, the incoming packet looks completely different from what the node is forwarding. This blurs the tracks on the information superhighway and makes it almost impossible to trace them back.
Of course, you can also call up “normal websites” with the Tor browser. You can also use the Tor browser to visit Google.com or your bank’s website. When you use the Tor browser, all data is encrypted and you are untraceable as the data is sent all over the world before it appears on your computer.
After you download and install Tor, the system usually connects to the network without any problems. Now you can choose: Either you surf the Clear Web as normal, but anonymously and safe from nosy data octopuses. Or you can go on a trip to the dark side of the WWW. To do this, you have to delve much deeper into the virtual universe of networks.
With Google, Bing or other classic browsers, however, you won’t get any further there. In the shadow realm you search with Ahmia.fi or Torch. You will also not find endings such as .de or .com on the dark web. There, all page names consist of letter-number combinations and the ending .onion.
Who is behind these pages is only known in the rarest of cases. And it’s practically impossible to censor onion sites or have them taken down from the web. The servers of these websites are usually located in countries where the laws do not allow censoring websites or content.
Anyone who wants to remain anonymous and cares about their privacy. Because anyone who is out and about in the Clear Web leaves traces and reveals a lot about themselves and their habits. Have you just searched Google for a holiday home on the Costa Blanca? Then you can be sure that you will be flooded with relevant web offers days after your search. This is how data sick people like Google create a fairly accurate user profile about you from each of your searches.
In this case, Tor helps ward off pesky snoopers. On the other hand, it can save lives for dissidents and journalists. In some regions, the dark web is the only source of information beyond dictatorship borders. Therefore, many news producers and newspapers also offer their services via .onion sites, such as the New York Times.
The Darknet is of fundamental importance for whistleblowers, who can transmit sensitive information there in encrypted form and feed it anonymously into the internet. Probably the best-known whistleblower is Edward Snowden.
Nerds and techies also love the Darknet, because they can find like-minded people there and exchange ideas without being bothered.
According to Tor developer Roger Dingledine, more than two million people use the anonymizing browser every day to surf harmless websites anonymously and bypass government censorship. Only one to three percent of users are on the actual Darknet. This also explains why the most visited websites on the dark web are not sleazy addresses, but classic targets such as Facebook, the data sharing service, OnionShare and news sites, according to analyze.
But, as always, good things can always be misused for bad things, especially if there is criminal energy behind them. During our research, we quickly realized that there is a lot in the deeper Darknet that we are neither interested in nor wanted to take a closer look at.
You can, but it’s better not to. Even if there are numerous marketplaces with legal and even more illegal offers on the Darknet, you should not buy anything there because:
Yes, as long as you don’t do anything illegal, this part of the internet is also perfectly legal. However, what is offered there is often not. The same rules of the game apply to the dark web as to real life: Anyone who wants to acquire drugs, weapons or other illegal things is treading on thin ice. This also applies to film and music downloads.
The Federal Office for Information Security puts it as follows: “Moving around on the Darknet alone is not illegal, even if it is a security risk.” Its legality does not mean that the Darknet is harmless, because one click quickly takes you to an illegal site. Fraudsters with fake and rip-off offers are waiting on every corner for the inexperienced, and you can quickly catch a Trojan or a virus. Therefore, you should exercise particular caution in the dark web and observe the following rules:
As easy as it is to delve into the dark web, it is just as difficult to find meaningful things there. Good sites and working links are in short supply.
You have to search the internet for the various directories yourself, such as DeepLink Onion or a Tor-specific search engine such as Ahmia or TOR66, whose name is intended to resemble Route 66. You should always use common sense when it comes to the results in these search engines.
There are many reasons for a trip to the dark web. Perhaps the most important thing is to get an idea of the legendary virtual half-world for yourself in order to be able to evaluate stories and news yourself. Visiting the dark side is not illegal. However, one should not be too squeamish if one embarks on the adventure, because there are not only committed journalists and self-sacrificing dissidents on the Darknet.
Anyone who is already amazed at what one has to read from some contemporaries in forums on the clear web will be appalled by some of the statements on the Darknet. For hobby psychologists, it can be a certain excitement to observe live what can otherwise only be seen in TV psychological blockbusters in the evening program. It can help to understand why the world is the way it is.
As with everything else, the key when surfing the dark web is to use a sense of proportion, common sense, and caution.
However: Tor itself is much more than just Darknet. It is an important tool for people who live in dictatorships and want to find out more. In addition, Tor makes it possible to surf the normal Internet anonymously and largely securely. And that alone speaks for installing and using the software.