What is the dark web? The dark web defined and explained


The dark web is often used by cybercriminals. But it’s also visited by journalists, law enforcement agencies and others.

Dark web defined

The term "dark web" sounds ominous, and there's a reason for that. The dark web is a part of the internet and made up of hidden sites that you can't find through conventional web browsers. Instead, you must rely on browsers and search engines designed specifically to unearth these hidden sites.

There’s also plenty of secrecy surrounding this corner of the internet. Sites on the dark web use encryption software so that their visitors and owners can remain anonymous and hide their locations. It’s why the dark web is home to so much illegal activity. If you tap into the dark web, you’ll find everything from illegal drug and gun sales to illicit pornography and stolen credit card and Social Security numbers.

But you should also know that there are legitimate reasons to visit this hidden region of the web.

Dissidents who fear political prosecution from their governments might use the dark web to communicate with each other. You might visit the dark web to get medical advice that you want to make sure remains anonymous. Sometimes journalists use the dark web so that they or their sources can remain anonymous.

Here’s a guide that will help you learn about the dark web, the sites that populate it and how you can visit it. Be careful, though: The dark web can be dangerous. And if you want to explore it for illegal activities, you could face prosecution and jail time. Depending on where you visit, and what you download, you could also be exposed to scammers and cybercriminals who could attempt to infect your devices with malware or steal your personal information.

What’s on the dark web?

The dark web has earned some of its seedy reputation. A 2016 report from researchers Daniel Moore and Thomas Rid, of King’s College in London, looked at 5,205 live sites on the dark web and found that 2,723 contained illicit content.

What does this mean? The report found that visitors to the dark web can buy and sell guns, drugs, counterfeit money, other people’s Netflix accounts, credit card numbers, and more. You can also find software that you can use to access other people’s computers.

But, again, the dark web isn’t just for criminals. You’ll also come across online versions of books that have long been out of print, a collection of political reporting from mainstream news sites, and several sites run by whistleblowers looking to expose corporate and government corruption.


The dark web might be most notable for providing black markets that visitors can use to buy illicit drugs. Silk Road is a good example. This site was famed for the drugs visitors could find on it. The FBI shut down Silk Road in 2013. A new version of the site came online later that year but was also shut down.

The founder of the site, Ross Ulbricht, who went under the false name Dread Pirate Roberts, was arrested in late 2014 and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. AlphaBay was another popular online marketplace filled with illegal products. It was shut down in 2017.


The dark web is home to plenty of pornography. This isn't surprising: People often want to remain anonymous when browsing porn. The dark web gives them that opportunity.

The dark web, though, is home to illegal pornography, too, such as child pornography. An example? In 2019, federal prosecutors filed charges against a 23-year-old South Korean man who is accused of running a large dark web-based marketplace for child pornography. According to news coverage of the case, the site contained more than 200,000 videos showing sex acts involving underage children.


Looking to buy guns on the dark web? You're not alone. A study published by the Rand Corporation in 2019 found that it's relatively easy to find firearms for sale here.

The study found, too, that almost 60 percent of the firearms listings are advertising products that originate in the United States. But Europe represents the largest market for arms trade on the dark web, generating revenues that are almost five times higher than what they are in the United States, according to the report.

Pistols ranked as the most commonly listed firearm, accounting for 84 percent of the firearms listings on the dark web, with rifles coming in a distant second at 10 percent.

Passwords and usernames for streaming services

If you don't mind stealing, you can find the passwords to a host of streaming services — both those offering mainstream movies and those hosting pornography — on the dark web. Cybercriminals sell these passwords to those who want to skimp out on paying the monthly fees for streaming subscriptions.

Passwords and usernames available typically include those for services such as Netflix, Hulu, HBO, Amazon Prime, and other streaming services.

Credit card and debit card numbers

Here's a scary one: According to a report by Gemini Advisory, 115 million stolen debit and credit card numbers were posted to the dark web in 2020.

Criminals sell these stolen numbers to other thieves. Armed with these numbers, criminals can make unauthorized purchases online using your information. And, yes, you can dispute these purchases, but who knows how much damage these thieves can do before you catch these illegal purchases?

Bank account numbers and passwords

If thieves sell credit and debit card numbers on the dark web, you can bet that they'll sell bank account numbers and passwords to online savings and checking accounts, too.

According to a report by cybersecurity firm Digital Shadows, more than 15 billion pieces of financial account details are now being sold in online marketplaces. According to the report, banking and financial accounts made up about a quarter of these online listings.

Again, criminals can do a lot of damage after buying your bank account details. They can use your account to make purchases and drain your savings or checking accounts quickly.

Social Security numbers

Criminals can also find Social Security numbers — along with other personal information like people’s birthdates, addresses, and phone numbers — for sale on the Dark Web.

Criminals can use your Social Security number to help steal your identity. That can lead to serious financial pain, as these thieves can use your identity to apply for credit cards in your name, apply for mortgage loans, and even file your income taxes in the hope of stealing your refund.

A brief history of the dark web

Like all things dealing with the internet, the dark web traces its history to 1969, when the Advanced Research Projects Agency, better known as ARPA, developed a computer communications network that eventually become the internet that we know today.

A key event for the dark web came in 2002, when the alpha version of the Tor web browser was launched. This browser, short for The Onion Router, is a free and open-source software that allows people to travel the web anonymously. The development of the Tor Browser that is commonly used today to access the dark web began in 2008.

Another big event occurred in 2009, when Bitcoin software was released to the public. Bitcoin is key for the dark web because this digital currency gives users the chance to purchase items anonymously. This is useful for people who want to buy something illegal.

Then came 2011, when the Silk Road online marketplace launched on the dark web. The founder of this site was able to use the combination of the internet, Tor browser, and bitcoin to give people the chance to buy drugs and make other illegal purchases anonymously.

Law enforcement authorities eventually shut down Silk Road. But other online marketplaces have popped up on the dark web to take its place. This includes sites such as AlphaBay, Dream Market, Hansa, and Wall Street Market. These dark web markets have all been either shut down or taken down, but others continously surface.

Difference between dark web and deep web

It’s easy to confuse the dark web with the deep web. But they aren’t the same.

The deep web is also hidden, in a way. But it’s home to benign sites, such as people’s password-protected email accounts, the intranets run by businesses, the online bank account pages of consumers, government databases, and private sites that require users to type in a log-in name and password.

Think of the dark web, then, as a small subset of the deep web that has become a haven for illegal activity.

Is it illegal to access the dark web?

Surfing the dark web isn’t illegal. Buying illegal drugs or firearms from a site on the dark web or downloading child pornography? That is illegal.

For instance, in the summer of 2018, the U.S. Department of Justice, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Secret Service, Drug Enforcement Administration, and the U.S. Postal Inspection Service teamed up to arrest more than 35 dark web vendors of drugs, weapons, and other illegal products. The agencies also seized $23.6 million in illegal guns, drugs, gold, and Bitcoin.

How to access the dark web

Still want to access the dark web? Here’s how to do it. Keep in mind, it’s up to you to stay safe.

Be safe

There are legitimate sites on the dark web, but searching for illegal drugs, guns, or pornography could be asking for trouble.

Download Tor

Tor is a browser that people use to connect to the internet anonymously. It is also a popular browser for people who want to access the dark web. In fact, you can’t access the dark web through browsers such as Chrome, Firefox, or Microsoft Edge. You’ll need Tor to get to dark web sites.

To download this browser, go to torproject.org. Once you download Tor, you can connect to the dark web. Tor, though, won’t find any sites on the dark web for you. You’ll actually have to find the dark web sites that you want to search on your own.

This remains tricky because sites on the dark web don’t come with easy to remember URLs, and many disappear suddenly. Usually, you’ll need to know the names and URLs of the dark web sites you want to visit. There are lists of dark web sites available, though, such as at thehiddenwiki.org. Just be careful if you click on that link. There are plenty of illegal sites on that list, and many of the listed sites will already be defunct.

Consider using a VPN

If you want to boost your privacy while surfing the dark web, you might consider purchasing a virtual private network — or VPN. A VPN provides you with anonymity by creating a private network from a public internet connection. This prevents online criminals from eavesdropping on your Wi-Fi connection and intercepting any data you might be sending or receiving.

Carefully browse and do not divulge any personal information

Again, be careful when browsing the dark web. Even if you are visiting this corner of the internet for legitimate reasons, it’s easy to stumble upon some bad places. Don’t divulge any of your personal information and don’t do anything online that you wouldn’t do in real life.

Dark web browser

Many who access the dark web do so by first connecting to it with the Tor browser. Why? Because of the privacy it brings.

Tor stands for “the onion routing project,” and was developed by the U.S. Navy. It was made available to the public in 2004.

The Tor browser differs from others such as Chrome or Firefox because it does not take the most direct route from your device to the web. Instead, Tor uses a random set of encrypted servers known as nodes.

By connecting to the internet through these encrypted nodes, you do so anonymously. This is particularly useful to people who are logging onto the dark web for illegal merchandise or pornography or those logging on from countries in which governments routinely track individuals.

Sites on the dark web also use Tor to stay anonymous. This way, you or others won't be able to uncover who is running these sites or where they are being hosted.

Dark web search engines

A search engine is not the same as a browser. While a browser lets you connect to the Internet, a search engine is what you use to search the internet once you get on it.

While you’ll use Tor to access the dark web, you’ll need to use a search engine to find its sites once you get on it. 

Some of the more popular dark web search engines include:

  1. DuckDuckGo: This is the Tor browser's default search engine. DuckDuckGo's main selling point is its privacy features. Because it does not track users, people can use it to browse the dark web anonymously.
  2. Torch: This search engine also doesn't track users. Torch claims to be the oldest search engine on the dark web
  3. Ahmia.fi: This search engine lets you see links to dark web sites using a traditional broswer like Chrome, Firefox, or Microsoft Edge. To access those sites, you'll still need the Tor browser, though.
  4. DarkSearch: DarkSearch claims to index Tor pages each day, surfing the dark web 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Dark web websites

Websites on the dark web set themselves apart with a unique domain name, .onion. Websites accessible through the Tor browser end in this domain name, just as sites reached through traditional browsers such as Chrome and Firefox end with such domain names as .com, .org, .gov, and .edu.

The names of dark web pages are unusual, too, and can make it difficult to find them. Instead of site names that are easy to memorize, such as CNN.com or Google.com, Tor sites are made up of a random series of numbers and letters. For instance, the web site of the torc dark web browser is cnkj6nippubgycuj.onion, while the Tor website for DuckDuckGo is 3g2upl4pq6kufc4m.onion.

Another challenge of finding dark web sites? They don’t often last. Many sites go defunct fairly quickly, either because they are shut down for illegal activity, their founders close shop after getting bored, or they move to a new address and name to help avoid detection.

Dark web commerce and cryptocurrency

The dark web wouldn’t be nearly as successful if it wasn’t for Bitcoin and other forms of cryptocurrency. Why? This type of virtual currency allows people to make sales or purchase items without knowing each other’s identity. This anonymity makes cryptocurrencies ideal for the dark web.

Because of this anonymity, Bitcoin and other forms of digital currency are the most commonly accepted form of payment on the dark web. People can use this virtual currency to purchase firearms, credentials and other items on the dark web. Of course, they can also use virtual currency to purchase legitimate items on the dark web.

You might think that it’s safe to buy items from the dark web as long as you’re using a form of online currency that keeps you anonymous. But this isn’t necessarily the case.

Remember, the anonymity of the dark web is attractive to scammers and criminals. There’s no guarantee that these thieves won’t scam you, even if you are using a virtual currency. Maybe the items you pay for won’t arrive. Or maybe the scammers will send you something you didn’t order. Many of the sites on the dark web don’t come with much protection.

What can you buy on the dark web?

What can you buy on the dark web? Plenty, though much of it you probably shouldn’t be purchasing. 

When you’re surfing the darkest corners of the web, you might find people selling: 

  • Stolen credit card numbers
  • Counterfeit gold bars
  • Marijuana
  • Crack cocaine
  • Firearms
  • Designer sweatshirts
  • High-end sunglasses
  • Pornography
  • Stolen Social Security numbers
  • Guides to living forever
  • Netflix accounts
  • Fake diplomas to Ivy League schools
  • Fake passports
  • Lifelike silicon face masks

Benefits of the dark web

The dark web gets a lot of negative press. That's not surprising, considering the amount of illegal activity that takes place there. But this slice of the web isn't all bad. There are many people who turn to the dark web for protection.

For instance, journalists and whistleblowers often work together to expose corruption at corporations and government agencies. They might use the dark web to communicate with each other without being detected by the same organizations they are investigating. 

The dark web is useful, too, in countries run by oppressive or authoritarian governments. The citizens of these countries might not be able to use traditional web browsers to access news sources critical of their governments. By using the dark web, these citizens can access online information anonymously, protecting themselves from censorship.

Political protestors might turn to the dark web, too, to remain anonymous while protesting the actions of their governments.

Frequently asked questions about the dark web

What is the dark web?

The dark web is a section of the Internet hidden to most mainstream web browsers. You’ll have to download the Tor browswer to access this part of the web.

What happens on the dark web?

The dark web is filled with a wide variety of sites. It does, though, have a seedy reputation as a place where people sell illegal firearms, drugs, pornography, and stolen personal identification. However, many legitimate organizations also run sites on the dark web.

How can I access the dark web?

You can’t get to the dark web with browsers such as Chrome, Firefox, or Microsoft Edge. Instead, you’ll have to download the Tor browser. The Tor browser allows you to connect to the dark web anonymously, though you’ll still have to use search engines created for the dark web, such as DuckDuckGo, to find sites on it.

Is it illegal to access 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 purchase illegal firearms, drugs, pornography, stolen passwords, hacked credit card account numbers, or other items on it.

What is sold on the dark web?

You can find legitimate products such as baskeball shoes, apparel, face masks, and other items on the dark web. Of course, you can also find plenty of illegal items such as hacked Netflix accounts, stolen Social Security numbers, credit card account numbers, firearms, and drugs, too.

Is the dark web safe?

The dark web can be safe if you don’t use it to do anything illegal. But be careful: Many criminals and scammers operate on the dark web. Dealing with them is never safe.

How big is the dark web?

The dark web is quite small when compared with the internet as a whole. No one truly knows the size of the dark web, but some estimate that it accounts for just 5 percent of the total internet.

When was the dark web created?

Many cite March 20, 2000, as the birthplace of the dark web. That's when Freenet, a peer-to-peer sharing network focused on anonymity, was launched.

Who created the dark web?

Surprisingly, the U.S. government is usually cited as the creator of the dark web. The government did this to allow spies to communicate with each other anonymously.

Dan Rafter
  • Dan Rafter
  • Freelance writer
Dan Rafter is a freelance writer who covers tech, finance, and real estate. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, and Fox Business.

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