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What is the dark web and how do you access it?

A person learns how to access the dark web on their computer.

The dark web is home to the internet’s hidden sites, services, and products—some innocent and some threatening. Read on to learn the pros and cons of the dark web and tips for staying safe. Then, install Norton 360 Deluxe to help you stay safer online and get notified if your personal information is found on the dark web.

What is the dark web?

The dark web is a part of the internet made up of hidden sites you can't find through conventional search engines. To access it, you need an anonymizing browser—most commonly Tor browser, which hides your web traffic by routing it through a series of decentralized nodes—and special search engines designed to help you find those hidden sites.

Dark web websites use encryption software so their visitors and owners can remain anonymous. Millions of active users route their traffic through Tor each day. Many of these users are likely connecting to the dark web, often for legitimate reasons.

What can you find on the dark web?

The dark web is used to host sites offering a myriad of goods and services, some of which are legal, while others fall into the realm of illegality.

Here are some examples of illegal goods and services found on the dark web:

  • Drugs
  • Weapons
  • Stolen data
  • Counterfeit currency
  • Fake IDs and passports
  • Malware and hacking tools
  • Hackers for hire
  • Stolen Social Security numbers

But, the dark web isn’t just for criminals. While the dark web remains a hub for illegal activities due its decentralized nature, it also offers many legal options catering to diverse needs.

Here are some examples of legitimate goods and services found on the dark web:

  • Memorabilia
  • Collectibles
  • Artisanal goods
  • Wellness products
  • Political forums
  • News sites
  • Message boards for whistleblowers and journalists

Surface web vs. deep web vs. dark web

The surface web is the part of the internet we use everyday that’s accessible via your regular browser and doesn’t require login credentials. Deep web websites are accessible through regular web browsers, but they require a login or subscription to access. The dark web is a subset of the deep web that regular browsers can’t access, because special network configuration like Tor is needed.

The terms “dark web” and “deep web” are often used interchangeably, but they aren’t the same. According to some estimates, the deep web comprises 90% of the internet, while the dark web includes less than 0.01% of all online content.

A graphic explains the differences between the dark web, deep web, and surface web.

When you access the dark web, you’re not surfing the interconnected servers you regularly interact with. Instead, everything stays internal and encrypted on the Tor network, providing extra security and privacy to users.

The deep web encompasses vast portions of the internet, housing benign content like password-protected emails, private databases, and corporate intranets. In contrast, the dark web constitutes a hidden subset of the deep web, accessible only through specialized tools like the Tor network.

Surface web

The surface web is your everyday web-surfing playground. If you’re reading this article on a regular browser, then you're browsing the surface web at this very moment.

Examples of the surface web include:

  • Internet browsers: Norton Private Browser, Safari, Google Chrome, Firefox, and Brave
  • Search engines: Google, Yahoo, DuckDuckGo, and Bing
  • Company websites: Blogs, product pages, and Support FAQs
  • Social media platforms: Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram
  • E-commerce platforms: Amazon, eBay, and Etsy
  • Entertainment websites: YouTube, Netflix, and Spotify (though specific user accounts are locked behind a subscription)

Deep web

The deep web is a bit harder to access than the surface web. Data on the deep web includes more private information, like password details, medical records, financial data, and legal documents.

Whenever you use login credentials to visit a website, you're accessing the deep web where information is tucked away behind passwords, paywalls, or encrypted networks.  And while the deep web encompasses portions of the internet that aren't indexed by conventional search engines, you can still get to the deep web with standard web browsers. When you access your email, streaming services, medical databases, banking portals, and other sites that require you to log in, you’re in the deep web.

Dark web

Unlike the surface and deep web, accessing the dark web requires specialized software like Tor that conceals your identity and location. The dark web is where users go to be anonymous for activities like private communications, drug trafficking, and organizing political protests.

On the dark web, one can find marketplaces for illegal goods and services—you can even buy malware and ransomware on the dark web. The dark web also hosts forums and marketplaces where users can engage in discussions, share information, and conduct transactions anonymously.

Advantages and disadvantages of the dark web

The dark web provides anonymity, facilitating discreet communication and information access. However, its unregulated environment can foster illegal activities that pose significant risks to users and organizations.

Benefits of using the dark web

A graphic explains the benefits of using the dark web.

The dark web has a bad rap, but it also has its benefits. For example, those who fear political persecution from their governments or workplaces might use the dark web to communicate with each other. Because there’s no way to track users, communicating over the dark web ensures a high level of security and privacy.

The anonymous nature of the dark web is integral for the following groups of people:

  • Journalists and whistleblowers who need to work together anonymously to expose corruption at corporations and government agencies.
  • Concerned citizens or citizens of oppressive or authoritarian governments who need access to unbiased news sources or ways to communicate privately.
  • Political protestors and activists who want to remain anonymous while protesting the actions of their governments.
  • Those seeking medical advice who might want to ask about specific treatments or other remedies without revealing their identity.

Everyday internet users also reap the benefits of the dark web. While the following activities aren’t always legal or allowed, the anonymity of the dark web can help people who need to:

  • Access research such as academic papers or research publications for free.
  • Use ad-free search engines that can help provide privacy and security by offering search results without tracking.
  • Access geo-blocked content or websites that are restricted based on censorship or other measures.
  • Secure cryptocurrency by using the dark web to safeguard cryptocurrency wallets or manage other digital assets.
  • Use social media without monitoring or fear of surveillance or tracking.
  • Find niche content such as specialized communities, obscure sites, or sensitive forums that may not be easily accessible on the surface web.
  • Access anonymous chat boards to discuss delicate or private topics confidentially.

The dark web’s bad reputation, however, isn’t unwarranted. Browsing the hidden side of the internet has its risks.

Risks and threats of the dark web

The dark web is usually safe to access for legitimate content and anonymous access. But it’s important to remember the risks that involve surfing the unregulated web.

Here are a few safety issues to consider while on the dark web:

  • Criminals: There’s a chance you’ll find websites run by criminals. Beyond selling illegal goods and services, they may seek to exploit you or steal from you.
  • Law breaking: You can be prosecuted for things you do on the dark web. Just because you’re on the dark web doesn’t mean you’re immune to punishment if you engage in illegal activity.
  • Suspicious links: If you click unknown links, you may be taken to material you might not want to see. It’s also possible that clicking a link or downloading a file could infect your device with malware.
  • Law enforcement: Law enforcement officials can operate on the dark web to catch people engaged in criminal activity. And just like others on the dark web, law enforcement does their work under a cloak of anonymity.
  • Viruses: Some dark web websites could infect your devices with viruses, and there are plenty of different types of viruses to watch out for.
  • Hackers: You can find forums for different types of hackers on the dark web selling their services. Unsurprisingly, a lot of these people are willing and able to hack your devices, too.
  • Webcam hijacking: A website on the dark web may try to get a remote administration tool—also known as a “RAT”—onto your device. That can let them hijack your webcam and spy on you through your device’s camera lens.

If you decide to venture into the dark web, be sure to educate yourself on the potential risks and dangers. Install and run strong security software like Norton 360 Deluxe on your computer to help protect and secure your device against malware and hackers.

How to access the dark web safely

While getting to the dark web may be easier than you think, actually navigating it is a different story. Here’s a quick tutorial on how to safely access the dark web and tips on using it.

Download Tor browser

Many who access the dark web do it with Tor (The Onion Router) browser. The Tor network was originally developed by the U.S. Naval Research Lab as a system of decentralized, anonymous nodes to enable communicating anonymously online. Tor is understood as the most popular dark web browser because of its security and privacy.

The Tor browser differs from normal web browsers, such as Chrome or Firefox, because it doesn’t route traffic directly from your device to the web. Instead, Tor uses a random set of encrypted servers, or decentralized nodes, to keep users and sites anonymous. Go to the Tor website to learn more, and check out our guide to the difference between Tor and a VPN.

Use a dark web search engine

Sites on the dark web don’t come with easy-to-remember URLs, and many disappear suddenly without warning. Using Tor helps you access the dark web, but you’ll need to use a dark web search engine to find sites once you’re there.

Some of the more popular dark web search engines include:

  • DuckDuckGo: This is the Tor browser's default search engine. DuckDuckGo's main selling point is its privacy features. Because it doesn’t track users, people can use it to browse the dark web anonymously.
  • Torch: With a main screen similar to Google’s, users who search the dark web with Torch will feel more at home. But ensure to remain vigilant about clicking links you’re unfamiliar with.
  • This search engine lets you see links to dark web websites using a traditional browser like Chrome, Firefox, or Microsoft Edge. To access those sites, you'll still need to navigate via through the Tor browser, though.

Remember: 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 web once you’ve opened the browser. To access search engines on the dark web, you still need to connect via a special browser, such as Tor.

Visit dark web websites

Websites on the dark web have unique domain names that end in .onion. When navigating the dark web on Tor, you’ll see that URLs end in .onion, just as sites reached through traditional browsers such as Chrome and Firefox end with domain names like .com, .org, .gov, and .edu.

The names of dark web pages are also unusual, which makes them difficult to find. Instead of site names that are easy to memorize, such as or, dark web sites are made up of a random series of numbers and letters. For instance, the website of the Torch dark web search engine is cnkj6nippubgycuj.onion.

Here are some other surface web URL examples and their dark web counterparts:

Example surface web URLs Example dark web URLs qmifwf762qftydprw2adbg7 hs2mkunac5xrz3cb5bu saflji3rja5lid.onion facebookwkhpilnemxj7asa niu7vnjjbiltxjqhye3mhb shg7kx5tfyd.onion https://duckduckgogg42 xjoc72x3sjasowoarfbgcmvfi maftt6twagswzczad.onion

Another challenge of finding dark websites is that they don’t often last very long. Many sites go defunct fairly quickly, either because they get 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. So don’t be surprised if the .onion URLS above have already changed.

Types of threats on the dark web

The dark web presents various threats, including malicious software and computer viruses, posing risks to users' systems and data security. Additionally, users face the potential danger of government monitoring and surveillance and the prevalence of scams and fraudulent activities that can lead to financial loss and identity theft.

Malicious software

The dark web harbors a plethora of malicious software, including viruses, ransomware, and other malware-as-a-service designed to compromise systems and steal sensitive information. Users navigating these hidden corners should exercise caution to avoid inadvertently downloading or installing harmful programs.

Government monitoring

Government monitoring can pose a threat to individuals accessing the dark web and engaging in illicit behavior. But some people use the dark web as a means to avoid government monitoring for purposes such as whistleblowing or bypassing government censorship. Even legitimate news sites like the BBC have an .onion URL for people who live in countries where BBC News is blocked or restricted.


Online scams abound on the dark web, with fraudsters offering counterfeit goods, fake services, and deceptive schemes to unsuspecting users. These scams can result in financial loss, identity theft, or other adverse consequences for individuals who fall victim. Users should remain vigilant and skeptical of offers or deals that seem too good to be true while browsing the dark web.

Tips for navigating the dark web

A graphic shares tips for navigating the dark web.

Just like when navigating the surface web, the dark web has similar risks to consider when protecting your personal information.

Be cautious

Be careful when browsing the dark web. Even though the dark web is touted as being private and secure, there are still risks involved. Like the surface web, the dark web is riddled with scams, phishing sites, and malware designed to exploit users who may not know better.

Even if you visit this corner of the internet for legitimate reasons, it’s easy to stumble upon bad actors or activities. Here are some extra precautions to follow:

  • Don’t divulge any of your personal information: Because there’s very little use of SSL certificates on the dark web, it’s harder to tell whether a website is genuine and safe.
  • Be wary of publicly posted onion URLs: If you can’t get a recommendation from someone you trust, seek multiple sources to verify the URL.
  • Avoid clicking on unknown links: Offensive or malicious materials may be just a click away.
  • Don’t do anything online that you wouldn’t do in real life: The dark web may be a haven for criminal activity, but law enforcement and government agencies could still be watching you.

Consider using a VPN

If basic anonymity is what you’re after, consider using a virtual private network (VPN). A VPN provides extra privacy by encrypting the data you send and receive online and changing your IP address, effectively hiding your location. That can help stop online criminals from eavesdropping on your Wi-Fi connection and intercepting data you might be sending or receiving. Learn more about how VPNs work and in which countries VPNs are legal.

Browse the web more safely

Consider bolstering your device’s security with tools like Norton 360 Deluxe, which can help block malicious links from loading and thwart dangerous downloads. With Norton 360 Deluxe, you’ll also get a built-in dark web monitor that notifies you in case your private data is found on the dark web. Plus, it features a built-in VPN to encrypt your connection and help protect the data you send and receive online.

FAQs about the dark web

Still curious about the dark web? We’ve answered a few of the most frequently asked questions for better clarity.

What is the dark web used for?

People use the dark web for various reasons, ranging from anonymous communication and browsing to more illicit activities. Additionally, it serves as a platform and resource for whistleblowers, activists, and individuals seeking to circumvent censorship or maintain privacy from governments.

Is the dark web illegal?

It’s not illegal to visit the dark web in the United States. But you can face criminal charges if you use the dark web to engage in illegal activity, such as the sale or purchase of illegal firearms, drugs, pornography, stolen passwords, hacked credit card account numbers, or other illicit items.

Who created the dark web?

The origins of the dark web can be traced back to the 1990s, when researchers at the U.S. Department of Defense and Naval Research Lab created an encrypted network that could support anonymous communication and protect the sensitive information of government spies. Their work eventually spawned the non-profit Tor network.

What do you do if your information is on the dark web?

If your information is on the dark web, monitor your accounts for suspicious activity and consider freezing or monitoring your credit reports. We also recommend changing any account login details related to the information found on the dark web.

  • Brenna Cleary
  • Principal social media marketing manager; security and privacy advocate
Brenna Cleary has worked in cybersecurity for 3 yrs and digital marketing 10. She is an advocate for online safety and an expert in secure digital guidance.

Editorial note: Our articles provide educational information for you. Our offerings may not cover or protect against every type of crime, fraud, or threat we write about. Our goal is to increase awareness about Cyber Safety. Please review complete Terms during enrollment or setup. Remember that no one can prevent all identity theft or cybercrime, and that LifeLock does not monitor all transactions at all businesses. The Norton and LifeLock brands are part of Gen Digital Inc. 


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