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What is the dark web?

What is the dark web
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The dark web is part of the internet that isn’t visible to search engines and requires the use of an anonymizing browser called Tor to be accessed.

Dark web definition

The dark web is a part of the internet that isn’t indexed by search engines. You’ve no doubt heard talk of the “dark web” as a hotbed of criminal activity — and it is. Researchers Daniel Moore and Thomas Rid of King’s College in London classified the contents of 2,723 live dark web sites over a five-week period in 2015 and found that 57% host illicit material. 

A 2019 study, Into the Web of Profit, conducted by Dr. Michael McGuires at the University of Surrey, shows that things have become worse. The number of dark web listings that could harm an enterprise has risen by 20% since 2016. Of all listings (excluding those selling drugs), 60% could potentially harm enterprises.

You can buy credit card numbers, all manner of drugs, guns, counterfeit money, stolen subscription credentials, hacked Netflix accounts and software that helps you break into other people’s computers. Buy login credentials to a $50,000 Bank of America account for $500. Get $3,000 in counterfeit $20 bills for $600. Buy seven prepaid debit cards, each with a $2,500 balance, for $500 (express shipping included). A “lifetime” Netflix premium account goes for $6. You can hire hackers to attack computers for you. You can buy usernames and passwords.Prepare to become a Certified Information Security Systems Professional with this comprehensive online course from PluralSight. Now offering a 10-day free trial! ]

But not everything is illegal, the dark web also has a legitimate side. For example, you can join a chess club or BlackBook, a social network described as the “the Facebook of Tor.”

Note: This post contains links to dark web sites that can only be accessed with the Tor browser, which can be downloaded for free at https://www.torproject.org.   

Dark web tools and services that present enterprise risk

The Into the Web of Profit report identified 12 categories of tools or services that could present a risk in the form of a network breach or data compromise:

  • Infection or attacks, including malware, distributed denial of service (DDoS) and botnets
  • Access, including remote access Trojans (RATs), keyloggers and exploits
  • Espionage, including services, customization and targeting
  • Support services such as tutorials
  • Credentials
  • Phishing
  • Refunds
  • Customer data
  • Operational data
  • Financial data
  • Intellectual properter/trade secrets
  • Other emerging threats

The report also outlined three risk variables for each category:

  • Devaluing the enterprise, which could include undermining brand trust, reputational damage or losing ground to a competitor
  • Disrupting the enterprise, which could include DDoS attacks or other malware that affects business operations
  • Defrauding the enterprise, which could include IP theft or espionage that impairs a company’s ability to compete or causes a direct financial loss

Dark web browser

All this activity, this vision of a bustling marketplace, might make you think that navigating the dark web is easy. It isn’t. The place is as messy and chaotic as you would expect when everyone is anonymous, and a substantial minority are out to scam others. 

Accessing the dark web requires the use of an anonymizing browser called Tor. The Tor browser routes your web page requests through a series of proxy servers operated by thousands of volunteers around the globe, rendering your IP address unidentifiable and untraceable. Tor works like magic, but the result is an experience that’s like the dark web itself: unpredictable, unreliable and maddeningly slow.

[ Is your data being sold? What you need to know about monitoring the dark web. | Get the latest from CSO by signing up for our newsletters. ]

Still, for those willing to put up with the inconvenience, the dark web provides a memorable glimpse at the seamy underbelly of the human experience – without the risk of skulking around in a dark alley. 

Dark web search engine

Dark web search engines exist, but even the best are challenged to keep up with the constantly shifting landscape. The experience is reminiscent of searching the web in the late 1990s. Even one of the best search engines, called Grams, returns results that are repetitive and often irrelevant to the query. Link lists like The Hidden Wiki are another option, but even indices also return a frustrating number of timed-out connections and 404 errors.

Dark web sites

Dark web sites look pretty much like any other site, but there are important differences. One is the naming structure. Instead of ending in .com or .co, dark web sites end in .onion. That’s “a special-use top level domain suffix designating an anonymous hidden service reachable via the Tor network,” according to Wikipedia. Browsers with the appropriate proxy can reach these sites, but others can’t.

Dark web sites also use a scrambled naming structure that creates URLs that are often impossible to remember. For example, a popular commerce site called Dream Market goes by the unintelligible address of “eajwlvm3z2lcca76.onion.”

Many dark websites are set up by scammers, who constantly move around to avoid the wrath of their victims. Even commerce sites that may have existed for a year or more can suddenly disappear if the owners decide to cash in and flee with the escrow money they’re holding on behalf of customers.

Law enforcement officials are getting better at finding and prosecuting owners of sites that sell illicit goods and services. In the summer of 2017, a team of cyber cops from three countries successfully shut down AlphaBay, the dark web’s largest source of contraband, sending shudders throughout the network. But many merchants simply migrated elsewhere.

The anonymous nature of the Tor network also makes it especially vulnerable to distributed denial of service attacks (DDoS), said Patrick Tiquet, Director of Security & Architecture at Keeper Security, and the company’s resident expert on the topic. “Sites are constantly changing addresses to avoid DDoS, which makes for a very dynamic environment,” he said. As a result, “The quality of search varies widely, and a lot of material is outdated.”SALTED HASHGet a hands-on, inside look at the dark web | Salted Hash Ep 25

Commerce on the dark web

The dark web has flourished thanks to bitcoin, the cryptocurrency that enables two parties to conduct a trusted transaction without knowing each other’s identity. “Bitcoin has been a major factor in the growth of the dark web, and the dark web has been a big factor in the growth of bitcoin,” says Ticket.

Nearly all dark web commerce sites conduct transactions in bitcoin or some variant, but that doesn’t mean it’s safe to do business there. The inherent anonymity of the place attracts scammers and thieves, but what do you expect when buying guns or drugs is your objective?

Dark web commerce sites have the same features as any e-retail operation, including ratings/reviews, shopping carts, and forums, but there are important differences. One is quality control. When both buyers and sellers are anonymous, the credibility of any rating system is dubious. Ratings are easily manipulated, and even sellers with long track records have been known to suddenly disappear with their customers’ crypto-coins, only to set up shop later under a different alias.

Most e-commerce providers offer some kind of escrow service that keeps customer funds on hold until the product has been delivered. However, in the event of a dispute don’t expect service with a smile. It’s pretty much up to the buyer and the seller to duke it out. Every communication is encrypted, so even the simplest transaction requires a PGP key.

Even completing a transaction is no guarantee that the goods will arrive. Many need to cross international borders, and customs officials are cracking down on suspicious packages. The dark web news site Deep.Dot.Web teems with stories of buyers who have been arrested or jailed for attempted purchases.SECURITYHow the dark web has gone corporate

Is the dark web illegal?

We don’t want to leave you with the impression that everything on the dark web is nefarious or illegal. The Tor network began as an anonymous communications channel, and it still serves a valuable purpose in helping people communicate in environments that are hostile to free speech. “A lot of people use it in countries where there’s eavesdropping or where internet access is criminalized,” Tiquet said.

If you want to learn all about privacy protection or cryptocurrency, the dark web has plenty to offer. There are a variety of private and encrypted email services, instructions for installing an anonymous operating system and advanced tips for the privacy-conscious.

There’s also material that you wouldn’t be surprised to find on the public web, such as links to full-text editions of hard-to-find books, collections of political news from mainstream websites and a guide to the steam tunnels under the Virginia Tech campus. You can conduct discussions about current events anonymously on Intel Exchange. There are several whistleblower sites, including a dark web version of Wikileaks. Pirate Bay, a BitTorrent site that law enforcement officials have repeatedly shut down, is alive and well there. Even Facebook has a dark web presence.

“More and more legitimate web companies are starting to have presences there,” Tiquet said. “It shows that they’re aware, they’re cutting edge and in the know.”

There’s also plenty of practical value for some organizations. Law enforcement agencies keep an ear to the ground on the dark web looking for stolen data from recent security breaches that might lead to a trail to the perpetrators. Many mainstream media organizations monitor whistleblower sites looking for news.

Staying on top of the hacker underground

Keeper’s Patrick Tiquet checks in regularly because it’s important for him to be on top of what’s happening in the hacker underground. “I use the dark web for situational awareness, threat analysis and keeping an eye on what’s going on,” he said will. “I want to know what information is available and have an external lens into the digital assets that are being monetized – this gives us insight on what hackers are targeting.”

If you find your own information on the dark web, there’s precious little you can do about it, but at least you’ll know you’ve been compromised. Bottom line: If you can tolerate the lousy performance, unpredictable availability, and occasional shock factor of the dark web, it’s worth a visit. Just don’t buy anything there.

The top .onion websites from the depths of the dark web

top dot onion sites
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Must-see sites on the dark web

What is the dark web?

The deep web is the part of the internet that is not indexed by search engines. A part of the deep web is the dark web, which exists inside layered proxy networks—known as darknets. Of these darknets, Tor is by far the largest. The suffix of its native domains, .onion, has become synonymous with internet freedom.

This article can also be found on the dark web!

Get the Tor browser (also known as the .onion browser) and go to http://expressobutiolem.onion/blog/best-onion-sites-on-dark-web/.

But what kind of sites are hosted in this darknet? What do they do, and why are they there? ExpressVPN proudly presents nine of the most (in-)famous:

(Note: You will need the Tor Browser to open all links to .onion websites in this article and to access the dark web. You can get the Tor Browser here.)

1. The Pulitzer-winning ProPublica

Onion homepage for ProPublica.
https://www.propub3r6espa33w.onion/

The first online publication that won a Pulitzer is now also the first major publication with a .onion address.

ProPublica does a lot of things differently. Its source of funding is the deep wallet of the Sandler Foundation and various other similar organizations.

Browsing ProPublica’s work through its .onion site works well, and the site’s very existence is a big win for privacy and free speech.

2. Facebook’s .onion site

https://www.facebookcorewwwi.onion/
Onion homepage for Facebook.

Why would one of the largest organizations known for its invasive stance on privacy and controversial clear-name policy have a .onion address?

While Facebook might collect everything you say and do on its platform, it isn’t happy with sharing this information with others. Facebook is also keenly aware of attempts by many governments to restrict access to a tool that allows strangers across the web to talk and collaborate freely.

Facebook’s .onion address doesn’t make it much easier to maintain an anonymous account, but it does make Facebook more accessible in places where it’s censored.

3. DuckDuckGo where Google doesn’t

http://3g2upl4pq6kufc4m.onion/
Onion homepage for DuckDuckGo.

Searching for content but don’t want to give up your privacy? DuckDuckGo is a great alternative to Google. Search activity isn’t logged by design. Even without the ability to learn about your behavior or monitor your email and browsing, DuckDuckGo provides decent results. Which raises the question: Are Google’s extensive surveillance techniques really necessary?

Over Tor, Google becomes annoying to use, because it frequently subjects searchers to captchas to prove they’re human. But The Duck excels at speed, reliability, and privacy.

4. The Privacy Conscious Wasabi Wallet

http://wasabiukrxmkdgve5kynjztuovbg43uxcbcxn6y2okcrsg7gb6jdmbad.onion
Onion homepage for Wasabi Wallet.

Wasabi Wallet is a Bitcoin wallet that not only hides all your data in the Tor Network but also allows you to ‘join’ your transactions with others to increase your anonymity. This makes it incredibly difficult to find out who you are paying.

The process costs a fee, but unlike with other ‘tumbler’ or ‘mixing’ services, there is no risk that Wasabi or any of its users could scam you out of your coins.

5. Riseup, the anonymous email and chat provider for activists

http://vww6ybal4bd7szmgncyruucpgfkqahzddi37ktceo3ah7ngmcopnpyyd.onion
Onion homepage for Riseup.

Riseup is a volunteer-run email provider for activists around the world.

Founded around 1999 by activists in Seattle, it has since grown to over six million users worldwide. It publishes a newsletter in multiple languages and not only runs Onion services for its website but all its email and chat services.

5. Sci-Hub

http://scihub22266oqcxt.onion/
Onion homepage for Sci-hub.

Sci-Hub is a platform that aims to liberate the world’s scientific knowledge.

Founded by Alexandra Elbakyan of Kazakhstan in 2011, it hosts over 50 million research papers and makes them available for free. This gives underfunded scientific institutions, as well as individuals, unprecedented access to the world’s collective knowledge, something certain to boost humankind’s search for an end to diseases, droughts, and hunger.

6. SecureDrop lets you leak information anonymously

https://secrdrop5wyphb5x.onion/
Onion homepage for SecureDrop.

SecureDrop is software that anybody can install for their local news organization. It makes it easy to let informants securely drop leaked information into an electronic ‘dead mailbox,’ which journalists can later open.

The tool also has a functionality that lets journalists communicate privately with their source. SecureDrop is used by many news organizations, including ProPublica, The Guardian, The Intercept, and The Washington Post. Want to browse through the leaked documents of some of the world’s most feared governments?

7. The actual CIA

ciadotgov4sjwlzihbbgxnqg3xiyrg7so2r2o3lt5wz5ypk4sxyjstad.onion

Onion homepage for the CIA.

Tor has an unlikely history. It was first developed by the U.S. Navy to help informants posted in foreign countries to relay information back safely. In that spirit, the CIA launched an Onion site to help people around the world access its resources securely.

8. Keybase is the cryptographic profile link system

http://fncuwbiisyh6ak3i.onion
Onion homepage for Keybase.

Keybase is an exciting identity service that aims to make it easy for you to link the presence of your online identities together in a cryptographic way. You can upload your PGP key, or have the site create one for you, and use it to cryptographically link your Twitter profile, Github account, or Bitcoin address together.

Keybase significantly raises the bar for attackers who want to impersonate you.

9. The Hidden Wiki on .onion

http://zqktlwiuavvvqqt4ybvgvi7tyo4hjl5xgfuvpdf6otjiycgwqbym2qad.onion/wiki/index.php/Main_Page
Onion homepage for the Hidden Wiki.

How do you discover content where search engines cannot reach? Just like in the old days of the internet, the dark web maintains numerous indexes of sites, like The Hidden Wiki.
This community-edited .onion Wikipedia contains a bunch of links to a wide variety of services and sources running on the dark web. Many of those links are defunct, and even more of them link to scams or potentially illegal activities. Click with caution!

It’s the only site in this list that already has the longer, more secure Version 3 onion URL.

So many more great sites

This is ExpressVPN’s list of .onion domains worth a visit, but these are not even the tip of the iceberg. There’s so much content out there (be warned, though, it’s not all good stuff).

We also liked:

The BBC: https://www.bbcnewsv2vjtpsuy.onion/
The New York Times: https://www.nytimes3xbfgragh.onion/
The Pirate Bay: http://uj3wazyk5u4hnvtk.onion/
Démocratie Participative: http://dp742web5fzh674o.onion/

But, we regret to inform you that The Onion does not have an Onion site: https://www.theonion.com/