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How to Access the Dark Web

Man browsing the Internet
Content on the dark web is deliberately hidden by its owners and requires special software — specifically, a browser called Tor — to access. ETham photo/Corbis/Getty Images

Ever heard of the website Silk Road? The U.S. shut down this infamous online black market and prominent member of the dark web in 2013. Search engines don't index any of the websites on the dark web, which means you can't get there by using Google or Yahoo or your search engine of choice. The dark web is known as a place where illegal goods and services can be bought and sold, and for that reason, it's earned a reputation for being a little seedy and salacious.

Sometimes people use the term deep web interchangeably with the dark web, but the two are not the same. The deep web also is inaccessible by search engine, but it's largely composed of sites and content that aren't public for reasons like paywalls or privacy concerns. You probably access the deep web regularly without even realizing it. For example, if you log on to your medical provider's website to send messages to your doctor or to check your latest test results, that's the deep web. Same goes for reading internal memos on your company's corporate intranet. Not because it's dark or dangerous, but because it's not available to see without proper login credentials. Deep web content makes up most of the internet — by some estimates, 96 percent or more, says CSO Daily.

The difference is that deep web content isn't accessible simply because it hides behind logins or paywalls, while dark web content is deliberately hidden by its owners and requires special software — specifically, a browser called Tor — to access. So, there are plenty of reasons to log on to the deep web, but are there legitimate reasons to seek out the dark web? Sure.

Tor started out as a way for users to communicate while staying completely anonymous, by sending search requests through a vast network of proxy servers around the world, so that anything you view can't be traced back to your computer. Tor still works the same way, though enterprising individuals have taken advantage of the anonymity to buy and sell all manner of vices. Still, people have reasons to stay anonymous without engaging in crime. Tor is useful in countries where internet access is monitored or restricted. As CSO Daily points out, journalists and law enforcement agencies visit the dark web to stay ahead of the news, while lawyers may look for information on their legal opponents there and everyday citizens concerned about online privacy may meet up on the dark web as well.

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Downloading Tor

If you want to explore the dark web, head to the Tor Project's website to download Tor.

Tor stands for "The Onion Router," with the onion serving as a reference for the different layers of the internet. It's available for Windows, Mac and Linux platforms, as well as Android and Apple mobile devices. In general, once you download and install Tor, you're good to go, though there are some things you should know. First, using Tor is slow, like the early days of dial-up internet, simply because it takes time to route your search requests through all those anonymizers. Second, accessing specific websites directly is a little different. Dark websites end with ".onion" instead of the typical ".com," ".edu," ".org" or whatnot. Also, sites don't have straightforward, easily memorized web addresses. Even if you're trying to get to the dark web version of Facebook (and yes, there is one), "facebook.onion" isn't going to get you there. There are random letters and numbers mixed in there, too. And finally, since the whole point of Tor is that no one knows who you are or where you're located, your search results might appear in a different language, because it'll assume you're somewhere else in the world based on the way the proxies happen to route your traffic.

In most places, Tor is completely legal to use, though there are some exceptions, like in China and Venezuela. That doesn't mean you can legally partake in the dark web's illegal offerings; just that having or using Tor itself is no reason for you to get in trouble.

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Staying Safe on the Dark Web

Be wary of buying services or products, even those that aren't illegal, because the dark web's anonymity makes it a haven for scammers. Be wary of sites that may infect your computer with viruses or other malicious software that could give hackers access to your passwords, or, say, your webcam. Also, since illegal and disturbing content abounds, and it is still illegal to access illegal content even if it's harder for the authorities to track you down, click and surf with extreme caution.

In addition to Tor's three layers of encryption, the browser also deletes your browsing history, erases your tracks and prevents sites from identifying and tracking you, explains Wired. Tor's security measures aren't foolproof, but they're pretty good. Keep in mind that if you use your real name, address, email address or other identifying information anywhere on the dark web, you're giving away the protections provided by Tor.

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