What is the darknet, and how to access it safely?
By Hennadii Cholovenko 709 25 Jan 2023
"Darknet" is associated with something illegal, forbidden, or criminal. This pattern is being imposed on society by the media. In fact, the darknet is a separate segment of the Internet, anonymous and free from government censorship or control.
Conventionally, the entire Internet can be divided into three layers.
The first layer is the open, public Internet (Surface Web) – public websites indexed by search engines that can be visited using any web browser (Google Chrome, Opera, Mozilla Firefox, etc.).
The second layer is called the Deep Web. It includes intranet sites of organizations; corporate storages and secure databases; websites that require identity verification; non-indexed resources that cannot be found using search engines like Google Search. All these web resources are closed and protected by several layers of security (authentication methods, passwords, and firewalls).
The third layer is the Dark Web (DarkNet). It is an anonymous segment of the Internet that can only be accessed through specialized software (standard web browsers cannot be used). This segment is free from censorship and is not controlled or regulated by anyone. This makes it attractive to many users – from libertarians, crypto-anarchists, and independent journalists to criminals.
The history of the dark web
The progenitor of the darknet is the ARPANET computer network, funded and created at the request of the US military. At a certain stage, separate protected segments were formed in this network, where data exchange was strictly confidential and closed. Similar solutions subsequently appeared in Britain, France, Germany, and other countries. Some users did not want government control and sought privacy.
In the 1990s, with the federal government's support and the US Navy's participation, a new technology for anonymous communication through the Onion computer network was patented. Then it was transformed into The Onion Routing (TOR) system. The US military and intelligence agencies planned to use this onion routing to maintain secure communications with intelligence officers and special agents, hiding IP addresses and encrypting messages using modern cryptographic methods. This concept was not only of interest to the military – dissidents, independent journalists, hackers, entrepreneurs, cypherpunks, libertarians, and crypto-anarchists sought the same privacy. They were looking for solutions to create their own dark web.
The result of such a search at the beginning of 2000 was the emergence of a secure decentralized data storage FreeNet, and in 2004 – an anonymous I2P network, short for the Invisible Internet Project. Access to it was possible only with the help of special software – the I2P client. Inside the "invisible" network, everything was the same as in the ordinary public Internet, but without censorship and using encryption and anonymization technologies: web surfing, web hosting, instant messaging, personal blogs, electronic libraries, file sharing using torrent trackers, email, VoIP services, etc.
In 2008, based on open source code, the first version of the anonymous web browser Tor was created, which provided confidential and private web surfing on the network. At the end of the same year, someone under the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto published a paper describing Bitcoin – new decentralized digital money that does not belong to banks and governments, which ordinary users can issue and use them to make confidential transfers.
Thus, at the end of the 2000s, all the necessary infrastructure for developing a public darknet was built, which was not controlled by officials, the military, and special services.
How to safely access the darknet
You can surf the dark web using specialized web browsers like Tor or Brave in Tor mode (we already covered the latter). All darknet web resources are located in the .onion domain. An attempt to open a site in such a domain through a regular web browser such as Chrome will fail, but the user can access the content through Tor or Brave. Both anonymous web browsers are open-source solutions, so you can download the distribution kit for any operating system from the official sites of these projects.
Darknet web resources open much more slowly than websites on the public Internet. This is due to "onion routing" when all traffic and data packets undergo multi-layer encryption resembling an onion. Data traffic moves through a chain of special intermediate nodes – onion routers. Each of them, for further routing, removes one layer of the onion to get the coordinates of the next node and so on. As a result, on the darknet, speed indicators gave way to security indicators, anonymity, and reliable data encryption.
Website design on the dark web is also unimportant – they are all straightforward, even primitive. They resemble web resources of the public Internet from the second half of the 90s. Here, the priorities are also different – not the design that matters, but the content, so web surfing with onion resources is slow but very safe.
What websites can you find on the dark web?
Disgraced journalists or politicians from authoritarian countries, where political competitors are physically destroyed, or freedom of speech is prohibited, have also found refuge in the darknet. Many forums are devoted to anarchism, libertarianism, cryptography, or IT technologies. There are marketplaces, file sharing, electronic libraries, mirrors of social networks of the public Internet (for example, Facebook), or even its own dark Wikipedia (The Hidden Wiki).
You can't find Google Search or Yahoo! on the dark web. There are solutions focused on searching specifically for websites in the .onion domain.
The most popular search engine is DuckDuckGo, but it searches for information only in the public segment of the Internet. Hence, its principle of operation is similar to Google's search engine.
If you need to find a specific website in the dark web, you usually use Ahmia, Haystak, Torch, Deep Search, or web resource directories like DeepLink Onion.
Independent media and confidential services
In fact, many users are forced to remain anonymous while surfing the web for many reasons. Firstly, not everyone is ready to put up with the fact that corporations such as Google, intelligence agencies, or hackers collect personal data to use them later for their own benefit. Secondly, in authoritarian states, web resources are increasingly being blocked, which impartially "bring the truth to the masses." That is why the darknet remains the only source of reliable, unbiased, and truthful information for tens of millions of citizens of such countries without state propaganda.
The dark web includes The New York Times, BuzzFeed, BBC, Deutsche Welle, ProPublica, and other media. There you can find secure email services like ProtonMail or RiseUp, secure chats or file-sharing services like Keybase, SecureDrop, or MegaTor, and short text encrypted messaging services like ZeroBin. Many web hosting services on the dark web, like Impreza Hosting, use both physical and cloud back-end solutions, providing the ability to create and maintain websites in the .onion domain. There are websites collecting donations for the Armed Forces of Ukraine and assistance to Ukraine against Russian military aggression.
Of course, the space without censorship and regulations attracts not only honest people. The dark web also includes marketplaces selling weapons or drugs and dealers of various illegal goods or services, such as DDoS attacks or bot farms. All this also takes place offline for cash and on the public Internet.
The dark web is only 5% of the total web resources, so crimes committed on the street or on the public Internet are several times more frequent. The darknet can be used by criminals to communicate and coordinate actions. But actual crimes, such as skimming or phishing, occur off the dark web. Criminals work where there is a large customer base, usually in the public Internet segment or on the streets of our cities. Therefore, the opinion about the extreme threat from the dark web, distributed by government media or law enforcement agencies of different countries, is exaggerated and manipulative. They need to better and more effectively perform their functions in the real world and reduce corruption in their ranks. This will help to obtain better results. They should let the darknet develop and further protect the principles of freedom, truth, and the struggle against authoritarian governments.