Google only indexes a tiny fraction of the internet. By some estimates, the web contains 500 times more content than what Google returns in search results. The links that Google and other search engines return when you type in a query is known as the “surface web,” while all the other, non-searchable content is referred to as the “deep web” or “invisible web”.
The dark net, or dark web, constitutes a small fraction of the deep web. The dark web is made up of purposefully hidden websites and services. Both the owners and users of the dark web are anonymous. Although not everything on the dark net is illegal, it’s where you’ll find many of the internet’s black markets, hacker forums, malware vendors, and other illicit activity.
What is the dark web?
The dark web, or dark net, is a small part of the deep web that is kept hidden on purpose. Websites and data on the dark web do typically require a special tool to access.
The type of site most commonly associated with the dark web are marketplaces where illicit goods such as narcotics, firearms, and stolen credit card numbers are bought and sold. The darkest corners are used to hire hitmen, engage in human trafficking, and exchange child pornography.
More than that, though, the dark web contains content and data that can be accessed with anonymity. It could be a blog, forum, chat room, or private gaming server.
The beauty of the dark net is anonymity. No one knows who anyone else is in the real world, so long as they take the necessary precautions. Users’ identities are safe from the prying eyes of governments and corporations.
The dark web and Tor are often used by journalists and whistleblowers to exchange sensitive information, including Edward Snowden himself. The Ashley Madison data dump, for instance, was posted to a site only accessible to Tor users.
How to access the Dark Web safely
To access the vast majority of the dark web, you’ll need Tor. Tor is a network of volunteer relays through which the user’s internet connection is routed. The connection is encrypted and all the traffic bounces between relays located around the world, making the user anonymous.
Related post: Dark Web Monitoring Tools
Get Tor Browser
The easiest way to access Tor is through a special browser, known as the Tor Browser. You can download and install it for free. You might want to hide your Tor Browser download using a VPN and your existing browser’s private/incognito mode.
Based on Firefox, Tor Browser lets you surf both the clear web and dark web. All your traffic is automatically routed through the Tor Network. Make sure to download the Tor Browser only from the official website, as not to risk downloading malware, spyware, or some other virus to your device.
Officially, the Tor Browser is only available on Windows, Mac, Android and Linux. Many experts advise against using third-party mobile browsers that utilize the Tor Network. Sorry, iOS users. There are no standard web browsers that can be used to access dark web content.
Added security: Use a VPN
Internet providers and websites can detect when Tor is being used because Tor node IPs are public. Although websites can’t identify you and ISPs can’t decrypt your internet traffic, they can see that Tor is being used. This can raise suspicions and draw unwanted attention.
If you want to use Tor privately, you can use either a VPN or Tor Bridges (Tor nodes that are not publicly indexed). Tor users in the USA in particular may want to use a VPN, which will be faster and more reliable.
When using a VPN for the dark web, your ISP will not be able to see that you are connected to a Tor node, only an encrypted tunnel to a VPN server.
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It would also be smart to install antivirus software. Even when using security measures and your own common sense, accessing deep web content still poses a risk. Antivirus will ensure that any viruses or malware downloaded from the dark web are removed.
Navigating the dark net
Now that you have Tor, you can access the dark web. Dark net websites are called “Tor hidden services”, and they can be distinguished from normal websites by their URLs.
Instead of “.com” or “.org”, dark web addresses can be distinguished by the top-level domain, “.onion“.
Obviously, finding these .onion websites is the first challenge, as they won’t show up in Google search results. You can’t just Google “Silk Road” and hope to land on the dark website.
BUT DON’T TAKE MY WORD FOR IT…
Always exercise extreme caution when using publicly posted onion URLs. If you can’t get a personal recommendation from someone you trust, verify the URL from multiple different sources.
The dark web has no shortage of criminal activity, scams, phishing sites, suspicious links, and malware designed to trick newbies. Links posted to the clear web in particular are often malicious. And because there’s very little use of HTTPS on the dark net, verifying whether or not a website is genuine using an SSL certificate is not feasible.
Reddit is also a valuable resource for finding the dark net or deep website you’re looking for. Try the /r/deepweb, /r/onions, and /r/Tor subreddits.
Anonymity is in your hands
Again, we can’t emphasize enough that security and anonymity are paramount to those on dark websites. Your ISP and the government might not be able to view your activity when on the Tor Network, but they do know you are on the Tor Network, and that alone is enough to raise eyebrows. In fact, a recent judgment by the US Supreme Court denoted that simply using Tor was sufficient probable cause for law enforcement to search and seize any computer around the world.
Another vital precaution is to ensure that your .onion URLs are correct. Onion URLs generally contain a string of seemingly random letters and numbers. Once you are certain that you have the correct URL, save it in an encrypted note—the Tor browser will not cache it for later. Otherwise, there’s a good chance of falling victim to a phishing scam like this fake bitcoin mixer.
We highly recommend employing another layer of security via a VPN.
What is the deep web?
The deep web is often confused with the dark net. Put simply, the deep web is all of the information stored online that isn’t indexed by search engines. You don’t need any special tools or a dark net browser to access most of the deep web; you just need to know where to look. Specialized search engines, directories, and wikis can help users locate the data they’re looking for.
Most of that information is hidden simply because the vast majority of users won’t find it relevant. Much of it is tucked away in databases that Google is either not interested in or barred from crawling. A lot of it is old and outdated. The contents of iPhone apps, the files in your Dropbox account, academic journals, court records, and private social media profiles are all examples of data that aren’t necessarily indexed by Google but still exist on the internet.
Many of the best general deep web search engines have shut down or been acquired, like Alltheweb, DeeperWeb, and CompletePlanet. Only a couple will offer more complete results than Google, Bing, or Yahoo:
- Dogpile – A metasearch engine that compiles results from several other search engines, removes duplicates and gives results
- The WWW Virtual Library– The original index of the web, but more of a directory than a search engine.
These are okay, but specialized search engines tend to be better than general ones for finding info on the deep web. If you’re looking for a court case, for example, use your state or country’s public records search. If you need academic journals, check out our article on using deep web search engines for academic and scholarly research. The more specific you can be, the better, or else you’ll just end up with the same search results that you would find on Google. If you need a specific file type, like an Excel file or a PDF, learn how to specify searches for that type of file (e.g. type “filetype:PDF” in your query).
How can I differentiate legitimate services from scams on the dark web?
Here are some tips to help you differentiate between legitimate services and scams on the dark web:
- Research: Before using any service on the dark web, do your research. Look for reviews and feedback from other users to get an idea of the legitimacy of the service. Be wary of services that have no reviews or feedback.
- Payment: Be cautious of services that require payment upfront or ask for payment through untraceable methods such as cryptocurrency. Legitimate services will usually offer secure payment options. Avoid providing credit card details or anything that can personally identify you.
- Too good to be true: Be wary of services that offer unrealistic deals or prices. If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.
- Communication: Legitimate services will usually have a way to contact them for support or questions. If a service has no way to contact them or does not respond to inquiries, it may be a scam.
- Reputation: Check the website’s or service’s reputation on the dark web. If it has a bad reputation or is known for scams, it’s best to avoid it. Some of these sites include illegal content and have been known to be monitored by law enforcement agencies.
- Personal Information: Be cautious of services that ask for personal information such as your name, address, or social security number. Legitimate services will require only minimal information.
VPN over Tor versus Tor over VPN
A VPN allows a user to encrypt all the internet traffic traveling to and from his or her device and route it through a server in a location of that user’s choosing. A VPN in combination with Tor further adds to the security and anonymity of the user.
While somewhat similar, Tor emphasizes anonymity, and a VPN emphasizes privacy.
Combining them reduces risk, but there’s an important distinction in how these two tools interact. Let’s first discuss Tor over VPN.
If you connect to your VPN and fire up Tor Browser, you’re using Tor over VPN, this is by far the most common method. All your device’s internet traffic first goes to the VPN server, then it bounces through the Tor Network before ending up at its final destination. Your ISP only sees the encrypted VPN traffic, and won’t know you’re on Tor. You can access .onion websites normally.
Tor over VPN requires you to trust your VPN provider, which can see that you are using Tor and keep metadata logs, though it can’t actually see the content of your encrypted Tor traffic. A logless VPN, which doesn’t store any traffic logs nor session logs is highly preferable. Traffic logs contain the content of your internet traffic, such as search queries and websites you visited, while session logs contain metadata like your IP address, when you logged into the VPN, and how much data was transferred. Traffic logs are a bigger concern than session logs, but neither are good.
For built-in Tor over VPN functionality, NordVPN operates specialized servers that automatically route you through the Tor network. You don’t even need to use Tor Browser, but keep in mind other browsers can still pass identifying information through the network. Alternatively, there’s IPVanish who claim to be the world’s number one VPN for Torand come highly recommended, you can save 60% on the annual plan here.
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Tor over VPN also doesn’t protect users from malicious Tor exit nodes. Because Tor nodes are made up of volunteers, not all of them play by the rules. The final relay before your traffic goes to the destination website is known as the exit node. The exit node decrypts your traffic and thus can steal your personal information or inject malicious code. Additionally, Tor exit nodes are often blocked by websites that don’t trust them, and Tor over VPN can’t do anything about that, either.
Then there’s the less popularVPN over Tor,which is advised against by the official Tor Project. Only two VPN providers that we know of, AirVPN and BolehVPN, offer this service, although neither of these score highly for speeds. In this case, the order of the two tools is switched. Internet traffic first passes through the Tor Network, and then through the VPN. This means the VPN provider doesn’t see your real IP address and the VPN protects you from those bad exit nodes.
The big downside is that your ISP will know you are using Tor, which is cause for concern in some places and will put many people off using this method. In this instance, too, it is important to use a loglessVPN and pay with Bitcoin if you can to stay anonymous. The VPN over Tor technique is also susceptible to an end-to-end timing attack, though it’s highly unlikely.
Tor over VPN requires you to place some trust in your VPN provider but not your ISP and is best if you want to access .onion websites. VPN over Tor requires you place trust in your ISP but not your VPN and is best if you want to avoid bad Tor exit nodes. Some consider VPN over Tor more secure because it maintains anonymity throughout the entire process (assuming you pay for your VPN anonymously). Although the official Tor Project advises against VPN over Tor, both methods are superior to not using a VPN at all.
The major caveat is speed. Due to all the nodes that your traffic passes through, Tor by itself significantly limits bandwidth. Adding a VPN to it, even a fast one like IPVanish will make it even slower, so please be patient.
I2P is an alternative anonymous network to Tor. Unlike Tor, however, it cannot be used to access the public internet. It can only be used to access hidden services specific to the I2P network. I2P cannot be used to access .onion sites because it is a completely separate network from Tor. Instead, I2P uses its own brand of hidden sites called “eepsites”.
So why would you use I2P instead of Tor? After all, it’s much less popular, can’t be used to access normal websites, and isn’t as easy to use, among other disadvantages. Both rely on a peer-to-peer routing structure combined with layered encryption to make browsing private and anonymous.
I2P does have a few advantages, though. It’s much faster and more reliable than Tor for a number of technical reasons. The peer-to-peer routing structure is more advanced and it does not rely on a trusted directory to get route information. I2P uses one-way tunnels, so an eavesdropper can only capture outbound or inbound traffic, not both.
Setting up I2P requires more configuration on the user’s part than Tor. I2P must be downloaded and installed, after which configuration is done through the router console. Then individual applications must each be separately configured to work with I2P. On a web browser, you’ll need to configure your browser’s proxy settings to use the correct port.
Like I2P, Freenet is a self-contained network within the network that can’t be used to access sites on the public web. It can only be used to access the content uploaded to the Freenet, which is a peer-to-peer distributed datastore. Unlike I2P and Tor, you don’t need a server to host content. Once you upload something, it stays there indefinitely even if you stop using Freenet, so long as it is popular.
Freenet allows users to connect in one of two modes: darknet and opennet. Darknet mode allows you to specify who your friends are on the network and only connect and share content with them. This allows groups of people to create closed anonymous networks made up solely of people they know and trust.
Alternatively, users can connect in opennet mode, which automatically assigns peers on the network. Unlike darknet mode, opennet uses a handful of centralized servers in addition to the decentralized peer-to-peer network.
Configuration is fairly straightforward. Just download, install, and run. When you open your default browser, Freenet will be ready and running through its web-based interface. Note you should use a separate browser than the one you normally use to help ensure anonymity.
Freenet is still an experiment designed to resist denial-of-service attacks and censorship.
How to get on the Dark Web FAQs
Are sites on the dark web illegal to use and visit?
he dark web contains much of the internet’s illicit content, ranging from drug trafficking to child pornography sites. Accessing such content is illegal and should be avoided.
That being said, not everything on the dark web is illegal. Many dark web sites are perfectly legal and safe to use, and in many cases are better for your privacy than clear web sites.
Why was the dark web created in the first place?
The Tor network was created by the US military in the 1990s for anonymous communication between spies over the internet. That effort was never fully realized, but the US military published the code under a free license in 2004. Researchers from the Electronic Frontier Foundation and other groups continued its development and launched the Tor project in 2006 as a tool for journalists, activists, and whistleblowers.
Will visiting the dark web attract attention?
Connecting to the Tor network might raise eyebrows depending on who and where you are. Although data sent through Tor can’t be tracked or decrypted, your internet service provider and network administrator can still see that you’re using Tor. For this reason, we recommend pairing Tor with a VPN. The VPN’s encryption will hide the fact that you’re using Tor from your ISP.
Can I use Tor to browse the surface web?
Yes! One of the great things about Tor is that it can be used to access both the dark web and the surface web. Just note that although you’ll be anonymous, you won’t have the speed or convenience of a direct connection, and some sites might block you outright.
Is my phone number on the dark web?
Yes, it's possible that your phone number is on the dark web. The best way to find out is to check the "Have I Been Pwned" (HIBP) website. This website allows you to type in your email address or phone number and see if it's been compromised in any data breaches. If your information has been compromised, then it's likely that your phone number is also on the dark web.
Do I need a VPN if I access the dark web on my phone?
Yes, you definitely need a VPN if you want to access the dark web on your phone. The reason for this is that the dark web is full of potentially dangerous content, and a VPN will help to keep your identity and personal information safe. Without a VPN, you could be putting yourself at risk of being hacked or scam
There are many different ways to access the dark web, but navigating it can be tricky and dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing. A VPN will give you an extra layer of protection and anonymity, making it much safer to explore the dark web.
Is porn available on the dark web?
There is no doubt that porn is widely available on the dark web. In fact, there is an entire section of the dark web dedicated to pornographic content. However, it is important to note that not all of this content is legal.
The dark web provides a space for people to access and share all sorts of illegal and explicit material without judgment or censorship.
In fact, much of it may be illegal under your jurisdiction. As such, you should exercise caution when accessing any unofficial dark websites.
Why isn't the dark web stopped or shut down?
There are a few reasons why the dark web isn't stopped or shut down. First, it's difficult to track and monitor activity on the dark web since much of it is encrypted.
Second, shutting down or controlling access to the dark web would be a huge undertaking and could have unintended consequences. Finally, many people see the dark web as a necessary tool for privacy and freedom of speech.
Can my ISP see that I am accessing the dark web?
The best way to access the dark web is to install Tor Browser. Note that your ISP will be able to see you’re connected to Tor. However, thanks to Tor’s onion routing, your online activity is encrypted and hidden from view. This means your ISP can’t see that you’re accessing the dark web (or indeed the specific sites you’re accessing).
You won’t be able to search the dark web with a regular browser (such as Chrome or Firefox). Besides, your online activity on such browsers is visible to your ISP unless you connect to a VPN service.
Can you go to the dark web with incognito mode?
Yes, you can access the dark web with incognito mode. However, it is essential to note that this does not provide any extra security for your device or information.
Incognito mode only prevents the browser from storing history and cookies; your IP address and other details are still visible to anyone on the network. Therefore, using a different browser, such as Tor, is recommended to browse safely and securely on the dark web.
Is the dark web actually anonymous?
Yes, the dark web is indeed anonymous. This means that the identities and locations of darknet users are hidden from public view and remain anonymous, even when interacting with other users or engaging in any online activity.
The technology behind this anonymous connection is known as "onion routing" which utilizes a layered approach to obscure data and protect users' locations on the network.
Identifying specific individuals who use the dark web can be quite tricky. However, we advise connecting to one of our recommended VPN services to stay anonymous.
See also: The best VPNs for Tor
- Download the Tor browser
Using Tor or visiting the Dark Web are not unlawful in themselves. It is of course illegal to carry out illegal acts anonymously, such as accessing child abuse images, promoting terrorism, or selling illegal items such as weapons.Can you access the dark web legally? ›
Using Tor or visiting the Dark Web are not unlawful in themselves. It is of course illegal to carry out illegal acts anonymously, such as accessing child abuse images, promoting terrorism, or selling illegal items such as weapons.How hard is it to access the dark web? ›
The easiest way to access Tor is through a special browser, known as the Tor Browser. You can download and install it for free. You might want to hide your Tor Browser download using a VPN and your existing browser's private/incognito mode. Based on Firefox, Tor Browser lets you surf both the clear web and dark web.What browser has to be used to access the dark web? ›
Searching the dark web
You need to use a dark web browser — such as the Tor browser — to search and access the dark web. Dark web browsers are specially designed to connect to websites on the Tor network, where most dark web sites are hosted.
Accessing the dark web requires the use of an anonymizing browser called Tor. The Tor browser routes your web page requests through a series of proxy servers operated by thousands of volunteers around the globe, rendering your IP address unidentifiable and untraceable.Can police track you on the dark web? ›
Can the police track you on the dark web? Yes, the police can still track you on the dark web if they need to, although it's extremely hard to do so. The Tor browser you use to access the dark web can mask your identity and location.What does CP mean on the dark web? ›
CP stands for Child Pornography on the Dark Web. Sellers and buyers of the media typically use the term when communicating with each other on the Dark Web. Experts estimate that nearly 80% of Dark Web traffic is dedicated to this illegal pornography.How long do you go to jail for the dark web? ›
The Dark Web is used to funnel money from illegal activities through anonymous accounts and shell companies. Money Laundering is punishable at the state level by jail time of up to 6 years. A federal charge of money laundering can result in a prison sentence of up to 20 years.What percentage of people are on the dark web? ›
Only approximately 6.7% of global users use the dark web for illicit activities such as sharing malware, distributing child abuse content, or selling illegal substances or weapons. Of course, many regular users of the dark web are selling dangerous, stolen or illegal items and many are also engaged in cybercrime.Can you access the dark web without VPN? ›
If you want to access the dark web, you need to do Tor over VPN. It won't be as secure, but it will give you access to onion sites. If you just want the best anonymity, but you're visiting the surface or deep web, then VPN over Tor is the way to go.
How to Access the Dark Web on Android Device. To access the Dark Web on Android, you'll need two key apps: Orbot and Orfox. Orbot is like Tor for Android—it connects your device to the Tor network. Orfox, on the other hand, is a web browser that, like the Tor browser, allows you to access .Can Google take you to the dark web? ›
To access the dark web, you can't use Google Search or browsers, such as Chrome or Safari. Instead, you need to use software designed specifically for this purpose, such as Tor or I2P.What happens if you go on the dark web? ›
It is not illegal to visit the dark web. But you can face criminal charges if you use the dark web to sell or purchase illegal firearms, drugs, pornography, stolen passwords, hacked credit card account numbers, or other items.Can someone hack my bank account with my phone number? ›
Fraudsters can try to access your online accounts (i.e., social media or banking) using your phone number. They can send a password reset to your phone and even trick automated systems into thinking they are you.What is Silk Road dark web? ›
Silk Road was an online black market and the first modern darknet market. It was launched in 2011 by its American founder Ross Ulbricht under the pseudonym "Dread Pirate Roberts". He ran the entire marketplace on his personal laptop, which was seized by the FBI on October 1, 2013.What do hackers sell on the dark web? ›
However, the dark web's anonymity has also given rise to the now-massive cybercrime industry. Bad actors have grown a thriving trade in all kinds of illicit commodities and services, including hacking as well as buying and selling things like illegal drugs, weapons, passwords, data and stolen identities.What legal things can you do on the dark web? ›
- Circumvent Government Censorship. ...
- Anonymous Email Services. ...
- Anonymous Collaboration With Journalists. ...
- Visit News Outlets. ...
- Contact the CIA Anonymously. ...
- Access to Academic Research. ...
- Use Ad-Free Search Engines. ...
- Secure Your Cryptocurrency Wallets.
The dark web is decentralized network that is not controlled by any single person or organization. Because of this, it is difficult to shut down the entire dark web.Is Tor a safe browser? ›
Is Tor Browser safe? The Tor Browser is generally considered safe and secure thanks to onion routing protocol that encrypts your data and hides your IP address. But Tor does have some vulnerabilities, and as with any browser, Tor users remain vulnerable to online threats, ranging from malware to phishing scams.What is the difference between the deep web and the dark web? ›
Simply put, the deep web is any part of the Net that is not indexed by search engines. This includes websites that gate their content behind paywalls, password-protected websites and even the contents of your email. The dark web, on the other hand, uses encryption software to provide even greater security.