The internet is like the ocean—bigger than you might think and largely unexplored. Most of what you can access using a web browser and search engine exists on the surface of the internet.
Below the surface lies the deep web. You might associate this term with attackers, scammers and illegal activities. And although there’s some truth to that, there are legitimate reasons to use the deep web.
The deep web is primarily made up of private databases, intranets and password-protected content. Only a tiny fraction of the deep web is encrypted and accessible using specific browsers. That part is the dark web and is notorious for illegal activity.
People often use the terms deep web and dark web interchangeably, but they’re worlds apart.
So what is the deep web, and what separates it from the dark web? Let’s explore the differences between the deep web and the dark web, what you can find in each and how that impacts your online security.
What Lives on the Deep Web?
The deep web is the part of the internet that isn’t indexed by traditional search engines like Google, Bing and Yahoo. It contains paywalled content and web pages hidden behind login forms such as social media profiles, emails and banking data.
The term Deep Web might sound mysterious, but the truth is, you access parts of the Deep Web every day. Each time you log in to your Twitter or Gmail account, you’re accessing pages on the deep web.
The deep web is more secure because it consists of protected user information such as:
- Financial information
- Private enterprise data
- Medical and insurance information
- Proprietary and confidential data
The dark web is a part of the deep web and exists on an encrypted network within the deep web. You can only access the dark web using a special browser like Tor—more on that a little later.
The Differences Between the Deep Web and Dark Web
The deep web makes up a large part of the internet, whereas the dark web is a small subset of the deep web.
The biggest difference between the deep web and the dark web is how the content is stored. Deep web content is stored behind paywalls or login forms and can be accessed using most web browsers. In contrast, dark web content is encrypted and can only be accessed using browsers that support the Tor network.
Another difference between the deep web and the dark web is the type of content they host.
The deep web consists of legitimate content including financial records, academic data and other confidential information. In contrast, the dark web contains both legitimate and illegitimate content.
Deep Web Vs. Dark Web: Are They Illegal?
The deep web is a part of your daily life. Yet the legality of accessing and using the deep web and the dark web can vary by country. The deep web is not illegal in the United States. You can browse the deep web without worrying about the FBI knocking down your door. The dark web isn’t illegal, either. You can find legitimate websites such as Facebook, The Guardian and The New York Times on the Dark Web.
But accessing, stealing or misusing confidential information and engaging in criminal activities on the deep and dark web can be illegal.
Are There Any Risks in Using the Deep Web?
There are no risks in using the deep web if you are authorized to access it. The deep web is the part of the internet that isn’t indexed by conventional search engines. It contains your personal information, social media accounts and cloud data.
Your Facebook inbox, Instagram DMs and Amazon order history are all parts of the deep web. Authorized access to those parts of the web presents little risk to your online safety.
However, the same can’t be said about the dark web.
What Are the Risks of Using the Dark Web?
Millions of people around the world access the dark web every day. Although some experts argue that the risks of using the dark web are the same as that of the open web, that isn’t true. The dark web lacks the security provisions of the surface web. For example, Firefox might warn you of a suspicious website or Google might keep a malicious site out of the results pages. Those measures act as guardrails to protect you on the open web.
The dark web offers no such protections. Thus, if you want to explore dark web sites, it helps to familiarize yourself with the following risks:
- You might expose your device to malware: The lack of security provisions on the dark web makes it a thriving place for malware marketplaces. It also hosts hundreds of websites designed to infect unsuspecting visitors. Navigating unknown websites and downloading illegal content can infect your device with malware. Hackers can also use compromised devices to track and access your personal information.
- You might end up on the government’s watchlist: Sites on the dark web rarely use descriptive names. Most URLs are random strings of numbers and letters that provide little insight into the website’s contents. One wrong click can lead you to an illegal site and put you on a government watchlist.
- Hackers might steal your private information: Like the open web, the dark web hosts a variety of chat rooms, forums and black markets. You can buy and sell virtually anything on the hidden web. Entering your information on a compromised dark site can lead to targeted phishing attempts and identity theft.
- You might get scammed: Dark web marketplaces offer illegal drugs, guns and stolen credit card information. But more often than not, they’re scams attempting to extort money or steal personal information from unsuspecting victims.
The annual data breach report by the ITRC found that the total number of data compromises in the U.S. went up by 68% in 2021 compared to the previous year. And that’s not all; it also found that phishing, ransomware and malware were the top three sources of cyberattacks. Together, they accounted for nearly two-thirds of all incidents.
Law enforcement agencies monitor the dark web for malicious activity. They frequently attempt to bring down organizations conducting business on the dark web.
For example, in April 2022, the German Federal Criminal Police, in coordination with the U.S. Department of Justice (DoJ), shut down the world’s oldest and largest darknet market—Hydra Market. According to DoJ estimates, the Hydra Market processed nearly 80% of all dark web cryptocurrency transactions in 2021.
In a public statement, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland reiterated the DoJ’s commitment to dismantling darknet markets. He stated, “We will continue to work alongside our international and interagency partners to disrupt and dismantle darknet markets, and to hold those who commit their crimes on the Dark Web accountable for their acts.”
Law enforcement agencies work to keep you safe online. But protecting your online information requires a proactive approach.
Hackers and scammers are always searching for new ways to exploit unsuspecting individuals. Investing in proactive online and device security is the best way to keep your information safe on the internet.
How to Access the Deep Web and the Dark Web?
You might be curious about how to access the deep web and the dark web.
You can access the deep web using a regular web browser such as Google Chrome, Firefox or Microsoft Edge. However, you need some extra tools to go beyond the surface of the internet, such as:
- Newspaper archives like Elephind.
- Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine.
- Academic databases and archives.
- Specialty search engines like CompletePlanet.
The safest way to access the dark web is using the Tor Project; a private, open source network developed by the U.S. Navy in the mid-1990s for covert communication.
The Onion Router (Tor) network encapsulates data into three layers of encryption—like an onion. It transmits the data through a series of three servers that peel away a layer of encryption one at a time.
When the data reaches its destination, it’s completely decrypted and nearly impossible to trace back to its origin.
Tor’s multi-layered encryption ensures your IP address is hidden and allows you to access dark web sites. But that doesn’t mean it’s entirely safe.
A compromised entry node in Tor’s network can allow hackers to track your IP address.
But here’s the good news: There’s a way to protect your information from compromised nodes. You can connect to a virtual private network (VPN) before you fire up the Tor browser. This strategy—known as Tor over VPN—offers several benefits:
- It allows you to use Tor in places where it’s blocked, such as school and office networks or certain countries.
- It hides your IP address from compromised Tor nodes.
- It prevents your ISP from discovering that you’re using Tor.
Layering the anonymity of Tor with the privacy of a VPN ensures the highest levels of safety when accessing the deep web and the dark web.
That said, who would risk browsing the dark web in the first place?
Who Uses the Dark Web?
A popular misconception about the dark web is that only drug traffickers and black hat hackers use the dark web. The reality, however, is that people from all walks of life use the dark web for legal activities.
While criminals do use the Dark Web for illegal purposes, others who use the Dark Web include:
- Journalists and activists: Journalists are prime targets for surveillance as they’re usually in contact with activists and politicians investigating leads and stories. The Dark Web allows journalists and activists to communicate privately away from prying eyes.
- Law enforcement officials and intelligence agencies: Law enforcement agencies rely on the Dark Web’s anonymity for information sharing. Some even use it to plan and execute covert operations domestically and internationally.
- Whistleblowers and dissidents: The dark web gives whistleblowers and dissidents a platform to share the truth anonymously. For example, in 2013, Edward Snowden used the dark web to expose human rights abuses by the NSA to a British newspaper—The Guardian.
- People trying to browse the web anonymously: The Tor network allows privacy-conscious users to browse the internet without dealing with trackers and cookies. Similarly, some use the dark web to exercise their right to free speech while others use it to hide their online footprint.
It’s important to remember that not everyone using the dark web does it with malicious intent.
What Happens on the Dark Web?
The dark web is often stereotyped as the sordid underbelly of the internet in pop culture. But it’s a lot more than that.
The anonymity of the dark web makes it ideal for both legitimate and illegitimate activities. Only a tiny fraction—approximately 6.7% of Tor users—use the dark web for illegal activities, according to a 2020 study by the Department of Political Science at Virginia Tech.
That tiny fraction that uses the Dark Web with unlawful intent uses it for selling drugs, weapons and unlawful services.
Your Information on the Dark Web
Cybercriminals on the dark web can sell your data to the highest bidders and even use it for illegal operations. There are several ways your information can be used (or misused) on the dark web, such as:
- Scammers might steal your identity.
- Hackers might use confidential information to launch various types of identity theft.
- Scammers might use the information to commit financial fraud.
- Hackers might sell your information to scam companies.
Should Business Owners be Worried About the Dark Web?
Although the deep web is safe, the dark web presents a risk to medium and small businesses. For instance, suppose you issue debit or credit cards to employees for business expenses. If they’re not careful enough, the card’s information can end up on the dark web.
A scan of dark web marketplaces by PrivacyAffairs.com revealed that stolen online banking credentials cost an average of $40. And that’s just one of the many things that get sold on the dark web.
As a small business, the identities of your employees could also be compromised due to data breaches. And when that happens, you might face expensive lawsuits and fines. Cybercrimes and data breaches cost businesses in the U.S. billions of dollars each year. Research by IBM found that the average cost of a data breach in the U.S. was $9.05 million—the highest of all countries globally.
With that in mind, here are some ways you can protect your business from cybercriminals:
- Use tools and protection services that offer dark web monitoring for businesses.
- Teach employees online and offline security best practices.
- Enforce strong passwords and two-factor authentication.
- Invest in device malware protection.
The increasing number of data breaches and sheer amount of private data available on the dark web is alarming. Small businesses should prioritize cybersecurity to stay ahead of the evolving threat landscape.
Improve Your Online Security
Learning what the deep web is and how the dark web poses a risk to your security is the first step toward securing your personal information. The next step is monitoring your data proactively to identify signs of identity theft. Dozens of services can alert you of possible identity theft and help you navigate government and financial institutions to secure your identity in the event of a compromise.