I’m assuming you’ve heard the terms Darknet, Dark web or Deep web before. If you haven’t this is going to blow your mind. If you have then you’re probably wondering how one can access these hidden Internet corners.
Before you read any further:
This is probably going to be one of the longest post I’ve written on 99Bitcoins but also the most interesting one of them all. If you just want to go ahead and learn how to access the Darknet you can skip to the bottom of the post and watch the video tutorial. But here’s the deal:
You can’t do much around the darknet without understanding it’s underlying basics, so you may want to stick around for the whole post. I promise you won’t be disappointed…
The Darknet VS. The Deep web
Most people get confused between the Deep Web and the Darknet. The Deep Web refers to all parts of the Internet which search engine can’t find. This can be anything from secure academic archives, library databases, members only websites all the way up to the Darknet which I’ll talk about shortly.
But get this:
The deep web is presumably 100 times larger than what is known as the “surface web” which is what you and I surf through search engines like Google, Yahoo! and Bing. Most of the deep web isn’t evil in any way, it’s just content blocked from search engines for security reasons.
There are some deep web search engines that let you explore some of it, you can find a complete list of them here. But here’s the interesting part of the deep web:
The Darknet. A part of the Internet that isn’t accessible through search engines at all, and also much more. It’s an anonymous Internet. On the Darknet no one knows your identity and no one knows who is behind any website. This is where people go to look for stuff when they don’t want to be found. Sounds creepy ? It is….
But even the Darknet isn’t all evil. A large part of it are just normal forums, blogs, essays etc. Because of the protection offered by the Darknet and its hidden services, activists in oppressive regimes are free to exchange ideas and organize themselves.
And then there’s the bad stuff: contract killers, child porn, drugs and other nasty stuff which share the same benefits of anonymity as the good sites.
The TOR Network
There are different “privacy networks” all composed of individual computers allowing them to create a decentrilized web. Each one of these privacy networks (also known as anonymity networks) is part of the Darknet. In this post we will focus only on the most popular one – the TOR network.
These websites around the TOR network are known as TOR services or hidden services, and since TOR and the Deep web aren’t indexed by search engines you can only find them through directories.
How to stay anonymous when surfing the Darknet
In order to access the Tor network you have to remain anonymous, this is not a request, it’s a prerequisite. This is done through a special web browser called, surprisingly enough, TOR. TOR stands for “The Onion Router”, it got its name from the fact that in order to reveal the core user of the browser you’ll have to peel a lot of layers off just like an onion.
You can use TOR to surf the pedestrian web (the everyday Internet you and I know and love) anonymously, or you can use it to access the Darknet.
Here’s the deal:
When you access the pedestrian Internet , you are directly communicating with websites. But when you’re accessing a website through TOR it’s like asking another user to ask another user to ask another user to fetch the webpage information for you. This is of course a over simplified explanation but the general idea is that communications bounce around a lot of different computers and it makes it very difficult to track who is actually viewing a website, sending an email or conducting any other action.
It also makes the Internet connection extremely slow, but for now here’s what you need to know about TOR:
It’s a free to download browser, you can get it here. The browser is built on top of the Firefox browser’s open source code so it’s pretty intuitive. Once you download and launch it it will connect you to the TOR network and you’re good to go.
TOR network was initially created by the US military to communicate anonymously. They still dump government files – not open to the general public – on the Darknet. Since the federal and other governments are themselves using the Darknet, they do not consider it feasible to order TOR to shut it down.
Navigating through the Darknet
On the surface, there is only one big difference between surfing the Darknet and surfing the “normal” web. URLs don’t look like anything you can actually read. They are random strings of characters followed by the extension “.onion”.
For example, if you launch TOR and go to this URL: http://3g2upl4pq6kufc4m.onion/ you’ll reach DuckDuckGo’s search engine on the TOR network. DuckDuckgois is a search engine that emphasizes protecting searchers’ privacy and avoiding the filter bubble of personalized search results. If you try to access that same URL through Chrome for example you won’t be allowed to view it.
One of the main resources for navigating through websites on the Darknet is through directories. TheHiddenWiki is an example of a TOR website directory which you can access through a normal browser as well. Keep in mind that some sites have already been taken offline so not all of them will work. This is the HiddenWiki’s URL on the TOR network: http://zqktlwi4fecvo6ri.onion/wiki/index.php/Main_Page.
Since keeping your connection anonymous requires bouncing around the connection you’ll notice that surfing on TOR is extremely slow in comparison to normal browsing. I guess that it’s also the reason most of the websites look like they were designed in the 1990s.
It gets even better:
Since sometimes websites are hosted on personal computers it’s totally possible that you won’t be able to access a site since the computer is just shut down. Other sites requires additional security measures and only allow specific users to enter. Remember this is a whole different universe that you know nothing about and the whole experience is kind of like travelling back in time.
Bitcoin’s role on the Darknet
Bitcoin plays an important role throughout the Darknet. Since staying anonymous is key, Bitcoin is the only currency you can pay with there. Unlike the “normal” web almost every other website has the “Bitcoin accepted” sign displayed on it. Because of Bitcoin’s pseudo-anonymous nature, it’s the perfect currency to power such an ecosystem.
Actually crypto currencies and “privacy networks” like TOR have a lot in common. They both require a network of individual computers to run, as opposed to one main server. This is called “distributed computing” and the computers are called nodes.
The problem occurs when people aren’t incentivized to operate nodes which can make the network slow and unreliable. The Bitcoin network does incentive miners to maintain the network, but individual nodes still aren’t getting any rewards and this can cause problems.
Additional security – using VPN
Although no one knows your identity when using TOR, some people like to add an additional layer of protection and connect to TOR through a Virtual Private Network (VPN). The reason is, that even though you’re anonymous, you can still be identified as using TOR for “something”.
Here’s the ugly truth:
Wired published an article back in 2014 called “Use privacy services? The NSA is probably tracking you” which explains how the NSA is tagging people who were identified as using TOR. Using a VPN allows you to connect to the Internet through a remote server which is located out of the country and therefor is impossible to track.
A taste of the Darknet
I’m pretty much a n00b to the Darknet. I opened up the HiddenWiki and tried to pick the most interesting sites I could find. Since this post is already bordering age appropriate content I’m not going to link to actual websites, only try to share my own experience.
I can categorize my experience as a mix between good and evil. The good part of it was surfing around websites which were all about freedom of speech, exchanging of ideas and grouping people together for common cause. Here’s an example of a quote from a website called Alpha-7-Bravo (http://opnju4nyz7wbypme.onion):
This is Lexington Green. Use this space for discussion and coordination of activities such as rallies, protest marches, etc… Any posts advocating violence or terror tactics will be removed.
On the other hand, you have the evil websites. Those who will sell you fake passports and IDs for different countries, allow you to acquire guns and ammo and even (and I quote) ruin someone’s life by getting them arrested through hacking.
It kind of gives you a bad feeling knowing that such websites exist around the world, but I guess that’s a more philosophical discussion of good vs. evil. Contradictions are very common around the Darknet as you can find security experts and criminal hackers on the same discussion board exchanging ideas.
Keep in mind, It’s not only terrorists that inhabit the Darknet it’s also government agents, and it’s not only criminals, it’s also law enforcers. So get ready for a ride if you plan to explore it yourself.
The 2 minute guide to accessing the Darknet
If you’re just interested in quickly accessing the Darknet, here’s how you do it:
- download TOR
- Use a VPN for added anonymity (optional)
- Surf the Darknet via search engines (DuckDuckGO – http://3g2upl4pq6kufc4m.onion/) or directories
Important security steps when using the Darknet
- Think twice before you click any link as you do not know who operates the website and where any of these links lead to. Use only known directories to reach authenticated destinations.
- DO NOT DOWNLOAD ANYTHING TO YOUR COMPUTER. No BitTorrents and no downloads as they may give away your actual IP when storing things to your computer.
A final word of warning
This post was written for educational purposes only. If you wish to use the Darknet, do it at your own discretion and at your own risk. Make sure to be aware of any consequences that may follow. I believe that information is a wonderful thing and that the Internet allows us to explore many wonderful places, but also many dark ones, stay safe and always make sure to employ good judgement.