How to explore the Dark Web safely

Friday, 28 September, 2018

A few weeks ago, we explained the key differences between the Deep Web and the Dark Web.

In essence, the Deep Web is a repository for information not meant to be publicly seen – draft blogs, product databases, online banking portals and so on.

The Dark Web is intended to be viewed, but only by selected individuals.

And while this unregulated internet may seem exotic and mysterious, you’ll need to exercise caution to navigate it safely.

Installing the right software

Firstly, you won’t be able to access the Dark Web through Chrome, Safari or other ‘surface’ browsers.

Most people opt to install the Tor Browser – part-funded by the US Government and lauded for its ability to preserve anonymity among users in repressive or undemocratic nations.

Tor’s dated interface resembles a 1990s web browser, and its download speeds are also more reminiscent of dial-up than fibre broadband.

That’s because every individual data packet is bounced all over the world en route to its destination, making it impossible to determine who’s viewing what information.

Fittingly, Dark websites often resemble throwbacks to the Nineties themselves – animated GIFs, coloured Comic Sans fonts and broken links are commonplace.

However, this is no nostalgia trip.

Finding relevant websites

Once it’s installed, Tor will slowly boot up, displaying the associated DuckDuckGo search engine on the home screen.

DuckDuckGo preserves user anonymity as well, though most of its results are drawn from the surface web.

That’s because websites in the internet’s murky firmament aren’t indexed in the way surface sites are.

There are no Google-style web crawlers down here. Instead, web addresses are generally published on message boards and link sites.

Since they’re not competing for visitors or trying to be ranked in search results, web addresses usually comprise lengthy strings of random alphanumeric characters.

Their addresses generally end in .onion. Tor is an abbreviation of The Onion Router, named after its multi-layered approach to encrypting and randomising the journeys of data packets.

You’ll probably need to copy and paste .onion URLs into Tor’s address bar – but before you do, it’s worth pausing for a moment.

Shock and awe

There is some truly grotesque content in the Dark Web, most notably videos of graphic violence and pornography.

There’s also a huge amount of spoof material, designed to scam the unwary into handing over cryptocurrencies like bitcoin for non-existent services.

Many web links and published URLs lead to dead sites. Coupled with Tor’s sluggish download speeds, finding a live website quickly becomes time-consuming.

Because website addresses are published on message boards and forums, their descriptions are often brief and potentially misleading.

An entirely distinct lexicon of abbreviations and slang is in use, so acronyms could refer to any number of things – some less wholesome than others.

Staying safe

Clicking onto a random website might expose you to sights you’d rather not encounter, so exercise caution and do your research.

Return to the surface web and Google terms if you’re not sure what they refer to.

Reddit has some good threads on navigating the Dark Web, while DuckDuckGo often finds useful resources Google and Bing wouldn’t display.

Back in the depths, The Hidden Wiki is packed with links, though many of them won’t work.

If you intend to buy goods or services, stick to sites or marketplaces with user reviews – paying close attention to other people’s comments.

Place any funds in escrow, to be released once an item is delivered or provided.

Identity theft is rampant down here, so use a pseudonym and never provide potentially identifiable information.

Neil Cumins author picture


Neil is our resident tech expert. He's written guides on loads of broadband head-scratchers and is determined to solve all your technology problems!