How to Access the Dark Web

And what you can do in the shadows.

By Carl Engelking|Wednesday, June 12, 2019
Romolo Tavani/Shutterstock

A one-minute download is all you need to access the internet’s subconscious: the dark web. It’s a faceless network where pedophiles, murderers and other ne’er-do-wells shake hands in shadow.

But in that shadow, good also thrives. The dark web hosts book clubs, treatises on freedom, the Bible — all life-threatening material in certain countries. Whistleblowers leak documents to journalists. FBI agents dismantle sex trafficking networks.

Still, even in a network thriving on a promise of anonymity, the breadcrumbs of identity can leave a trail.

Who Created the Dark Web?

Onion routing, a technique that conceals data in layers of encryption, was originally created by the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory in the mid-1990s to keep intelligence agents anonymous while collecting information online. But to truly anonymize their identities, the network needed to be bigger — the more computers, or nodes, relaying data, the more points the network has to generate random pathways for data to travel through. So, the Navy made the technology public through the Tor Project. (Tor is an acronym for The Onion Router.)

Surface Web: 5%
Represents websites indexed and discoverable by search engines or by entering a “www” address into your browser.

Deep Web: 90%
Sites that aren’t indexed by a search engine. These include your company’s intranet, digital medical records, email services, bank accounts and other sites that require a password and login ID to access.

Dark Web: 5%
Accessible only with special software or browsers that make users anonymous. Data is encrypted, or scrambled, into a mess that only the right digital key can decipher.

Dan Bishop/Discover

Is It Really Anonymous?

Although the Tor network masks your location, there are still ways to reveal someone’s identity. Here are just a couple:

  • Traffic analysis: By observing data flows, it’s possible to match exchanges between linked computers and decipher their true location. For instance, you may notice that one computer (A) sent a message at a certain time, while another computer (B) received a message at a time that roughly corresponds to how long it would take for data to get from A to B. If there are multiple instances of that happening, you might be on to someone. It’s difficult — you typically need to know the entry and exit nodes — but it’s possible.
  • Bitcoin transactions: Researchers in Qatar identified 125 Tor users linked to illegal services on the network. The team systematically hunted for the addresses of the digital currency bitcoin. The addresses — unique codes, like credit card numbers — allow users to send bitcoin to each other. The program scoured both the dark web and public forums like Twitter. Eventually, the researchers linked publicly posted bitcoin addresses to the same addresses used in dark web transactions to reveal users’ identities.
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