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The dark web for most of us, is still not only mystifying, but also a huge mystery. We’ve all heard the “dark web” is a hotbed of criminal activity and rest assured it is.  This is because the dark web is the part of the internet that isn’t indexed or seen by search engines and displayed when you “google” something.  You can buy credit card numbers, drugs, guns, counterfeit money, stolen subscription credentials and usernames and passwords for all types of hacked accounts. Want login credentials to a $50,000 Bank of America account it’s out there for $500. Counterfeit money, no problem, for $600 you can get $3,000 in counterfeit $20 bills. Need prepaid debit cards, get 7 of them all with a $2,500 balance, for $500 (express shipping included). Need a “lifetime” Netflix premium account that will be $6. Don’t know how to hack? You can hire hackers to attack computers for you.

With all this activity, you might think that navigating the dark web is easy. It isn’t. The place is messy and chaotic as everyone is anonymous, and a substantial minority are out to scam others.  To access the dark web you must use the 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, which renders your IP address unidentifiable and untraceable. Tor seems to work like magic, but the result is an experience that’s like the dark web itself: unpredictable, unreliable and maddeningly slow. If you are willing to put up with the inconvenience, the dark web provides a memorable glimpse at the seamy underbelly of the human experience – kinda like skulking around a dark alley.

Dark web search engines, think Google, exist but even the best, like Grams, is challenged to keep up with the constantly shifting landscape. The experience is reminiscent of searching the web in the late 1990s with return results that are repetitive and often irrelevant with a frustrating number of timed-out connections and 404 errors.

Dark web sites look pretty much like any other site, but instead of ending in .com or .co, dark web sites end in .onion. That is a special-use top level domain suffix designating an anonymous hidden service reachable via the Tor network. Dark web sites also use a scrambled naming structure that create web addresses that are often impossible to remember. For example, the commerce site called Dream Market goes by the unintelligible address of “eajwlvm3z2lcca76.onion.” Many dark websites are set up by scammers, who constantly move around to avoid the wrath of their victims. Even commerce sites that may have existed for a year or more can suddenly disappear if the owners decide to cash in and flee with the escrow money they’re holding. Law enforcement officials are getting better at finding and prosecuting owners of sites that sell illicit goods and services, but many times merchants simply migrate elsewhere.

Bitcoin has been a major factor in the growth of the dark web, and in turn the dark web has been a big factor in the growth of bitcoin. Nearly all dark web commerce sites conduct transactions in bitcoin or some variant, but that doesn’t mean it’s safe to do business there. The inherent anonymity of the place attracts scammers and thieves, but what do you expect when you are buying guns or drugs?

Not all of the dark web is used for illicit purposes and does have a legitimate side. You can join BlackBook, a social network known as the “the Facebook of Tor.”

The dark web is really a subset of the deep web.  So, what is the difference between the deep web and the dark web?  These terms are sometimes used interchangeably, but they are NOT the same. Deep web refers to anything on the internet that is not indexed and accessible via a search engine like Google. Deep web content includes anything behind a paywall or requires sign-in credentials. It also includes any content that owners have blocked web crawlers from indexing. Medical records, fee-based content, membership websites, and confidential corporate web pages are all examples of what makes up the deep web. Estimates place the size of the deep web at between 96% and 99% of the internet. Only a tiny portion of the internet is accessible through a standard web browser, like Chrome, and is known as the clear web. No one really knows the size of the dark web, but most estimates put it at around 5% of the total internet.

If you find your own information on the dark web, there’s precious little you can do about it, but at least you’ll know you’ve been compromised. Bottom line: If you can tolerate the lousy performance, unpredictable availability, and occasional shock factor of the dark web, it’s worth a visit. Just don’t buy anything there!

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Jill Van Hoesen
Information Security Officer