Written by Anagha H | Updated: September 20, 2020 12:29:02 pm

What pictures come to mind when you hear the words “Dark web“? Perhaps it immediately conjures up a hazy, elusive network of cyber criminals who market drugs, human parts, and the services of hitmen or sites hosting salacious, illicit pornography and abhorrent pay-per-view ‘Red Rooms’.

Would you ever imagine that the scary, nefarious dark web also hosts something as innocuous as JustChess- a site which does exactly what its name says, just allows you to play chess? Let’s peel this onion away layer by layer and try to understand exactly what the dark web entails.

What is the Dark Web?

First off, let’s clarify a common misconception- although the deep web is conflated with the dark web, they are two separate entities, neither of which are illegal in themselves. While the clear net (around 4% of the internet) is what we regularly browse, the Deep Web (90% of the internet) comprises web pages that cannot be accessed by a search engine, like drafts of emails, banking pages, medical records, legal documents and so on.

The Dark Web (covering the remaining 6%) is the seedy underbelly of the deep web which offers the grisly amenities stated at the beginning and other innocent resources, all un-indexed by search engines.

It can be explored using browsers like Freenet, I2P, and most famously, Tor, with VPNs and Tails OS for additional security. The Onion Router (Tor) was a project launched by the US Navy in order to enable secure communication between government officials and it was made public, for free, so that the deluge of users would ensure more anonymity. The distinguishing factor of dark websites from the surface web is the use of “.onion” in their domain names.

Services Offered

As the selling point of the dark web is virtual invisibility, it’s no surprise that it hosts an incredibly wide spectrum of activities but it was initially pegged as a safe space to voice dissent, especially by citizens of draconian countries with uncompromising internet laws. Seeing as China blocked most Tor sites using ‘The Great Firewall of China’, you can understand why this is crucial in many parts of the world.

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Chat rooms dedicated to whistleblowers and for people to just talk without their governments breathing down their necks popped up; it wasn’t long before the media recognized this opportune trend and set up dark web versions of their publications from the likes of WikiLeaks and Radio Free Asia to ProPublica, The New York Times and BBC.

Sites like SecureDrop allow journalists to interact with whistleblowers (remember Edward Snowden?) which reputed companies such as Reuters and Forbes make use of. Even Facebook has a dark web alias!

Other communication services offered on the dark web include email providers (ProtonMail, SecMail), pirated media (The Pirate Bay), the assistance of hacker groups (Mazafaka, xDedic), and even puzzles like the popular Cicada 3301.

Moving onto the more sordid facilities proffered in this clandestine matrix: stolen social security and credit card numbers, free-for-life Netflix accounts, fake degrees, gambling sites, extremist message boards (The Daily Stormer), and The Hidden Wiki (a directory of all the onion sites). The number of commerce forums was booming in the 2010s, after the outspread success of Silk Road.

It was defunct after the arrest of its founder and many other markets rose to take its place (AlphaBay, Dreamer Market, TheRealDeal). However, these cyber-drug rackets aren’t as evasive as they’d like to believe; they were all busted over the years by the coordinated efforts of sleuths internationally (Operation Onymous, Operation Trance).

This is a massive relief, considering the items that were on sale- skimmers, designer knockoffs, iPhones, cyber-arms, human organs, controlled animal products, guns
and at the heart of it all, drugs.

Now to the truly gruesome, notorious side of the dark web which garnered its reputation as a hub for offenders. You’ve probably heard of the exaggerated urban myths- hurt core and torture videos, how you can hire hitmen, twisted games like Sad Satan, the disturbing Human Experiment, and Mystery Boxes. The list is endless. So are the number of scams out there.

The consensus is that Red Rooms are most likely fictional, Sad Satan a poor publicity stunt by the YouTuber who brought it up and the idea of hiring hitmen is plain ludicrous (Besa Mafia was a big, fat scam after all). But that doesn’t mean the dark web doesn’t house actual stomach-churning material.

Statistics show that pedophilic porn has the highest traffic on the dark web, right next to revenge porn and animal abuse videos. Terrorist websites use it for their operations. Its easy access to drugs created an addiction crisis in the UK, particularly due to the sale of fake Xanax termed ‘The Red Devil’, and ironically, despite being a haven for the privacy-conscious, its users are frequently targeted in scams (take the Ashley Madison or the monumental Equifax data breach for example).

Risks Involved

If the thought of the scarring information you might run into is not enough to keep you surfing on the shallow, clearer waters of the web, here are some more reasons as to why a dive into the deeper end is just not worth it. Bitcoins are the unofficial medium of exchange and like all cryptocurrencies, it’s vulnerable to frauds and high price volatility. Thus, trying to buy anything off the dark web makes you susceptible to cyberthreats.

Experts and novices alike still haven’t gotten a hang of navigating this dynamic landscape. Its search engines are frustratingly slow and of little help, presenting redundant results with 404 errors more often than not. Since they cannot index sites, you can easily click on links leading you to illegal forums by mistake.

If your plugins and scripts are left on, they can reveal your IP address; you will be unwittingly associated with the lewd and revolting sites you stumbled upon. This can turn you into a target for government surveillance or for hackers, who grab such chances to obtain your credentials and blackmail you with it. As meticulous as you may be to avoid it, it’s highly probable that visiting a seemingly harmless site will end up accidentally downloading malicious software in your device.

So there you have the facts, you can decide for yourself how dangerous the dark web really is. Just remember- curiosity killed the cat and satisfaction might have brought it back, but satisfaction won’t remove the black of your unintentional verboten activities from your record. Here’s to inadvertent crime.

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