What Is the Dark Web?
Purposes of the Dark Web
The dark web allows users to conceal their identifiable information, including IP addresses, when accessing dark websites via encryption-providing browsers. There are several non-criminal reasons why Internet users might choose to access the dark web:
- Free speech
- Investigative purposes
- Security awareness
- Political dissent
- Posting and accessing news banned by repressive governments
- Avoiding cyberstalking
Where Is the Dark Web?
The terms dark web and deep web are often used interchangeably; they both share functional similarities and operational differences that make them unique in the cybersecurity threat landscape. Neither of them is fully accessible by standard search engines. However, the deep web differs in that it doesn’t require a specialized browser such as TOR to access its contents. The deep web includes anything that is not findable on the surface of the Internet—websites invisible to search engines because they’re not indexed and aren’t meant for general public access.
Deep web content is usually hidden behind paywalls or require authentication and can range from medical records to online banking accounts, to confidential company data and private databases—and includes the dark web.
Both the deep web and dark web have their benefits. The deep web protects confidential information, and the dark web allows users to browse with a considerable amount of anonymity. However, risks exist because threat actors focus efforts on accessing portions of the deep web for potential financial rewards.
Risks of the Dark Web
Though browsing the dark web isn’t necessarily dangerous, it is ultimately the responsibilities of a site's owner to ensure that its service is secure and the user to take necessary precautions when accessing a dark website. The dark web is a hub for threat actors’ activity; users can endanger themselves when they engage with malicious actors or fail to take the necessary steps to protect themselves. Careless usage of the dark web can expose a user's personally identifiable information (PII); users could even discover that their PIIs were leveraged in illegal transactions without their knowledge. Risk also arises when a user downloads pirated content containing malware like trojans, worms, and keyloggers, allowing themselves to be tracked and monitored.
The high volume of unlawful activities and explicit content on the dark web also creates a risk of suffering psychological harm. Exposing oneself to such content can be deeply unsettling; venturing into the dark web should be done with extreme caution.
What Is Sold on the Dark Web?
The items sold on the dark web could harm the public or private businesses, as malicious and illegal actors are often the buyers and sellers. Like any marketplace in the physical world, illicit products, tools, and services are sold, bought, and distributed on the dark web.
Items sold on the dark web include:
- Stolen credit card details
- System hacking tools and services (Ransomware-as-a-Service)
- Illegal drugs
- Counterfeit money
- Assassin-for-hire services
- System intrusion services
Tools and Services of the Dark Web
The nefarious activities that malicious actors partake in often require them to operate under the radar, to remain hidden from law enforcement monitoring. Well-known anonymous tools and services on the dark web include:
Hushmail: An email service that prioritizes customers' anonymity by employing the industry-standard encryption methods PGP and 256-bit AES.
Hidden wiki: A website called a "hidden service" hosted on the TOR anonymity network that enables open editing of content and provides links to sites with concerning activities.
Internet Relay Chat (IRC): A method of communication that facilitates the direct exchange of text-based messages. It is designed for group discussions to take place in forums referred to as channels.
Onion browser: A web browser like the Tor Browser Bundle (TBB) that functions with the Tor network, allowing users to visit hidden services and regular websites anonymously without the risk of their personal information being leaked.
SIGAINT: A darknet email service built on TOR that enables users to send and receive emails without disclosing their location or identity.
TORchat: An instant messaging service that allows users to communicate with one another while maintaining their anonymity by requiring them to configure a "hidden service" that can access the Tor network.
How to Safely Access the Dark Web
Internet users may be inclined to access the dark web to start browsing anonymously or to satisfy their curiosity. Gaining access is not challenging; however, it can be difficult to actively engage in dark web activities without the appropriate networks and technical knowledge. It’s imperative that any dark web exploring is done with extreme caution.
The TOR browser is the first step to safely exploring the dark web, as it conceals a user’s identity by hiding their IP address and browsing activity. However, identities are still not completely anonymous after accessing the TOR browser. Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and websites can detect whenever anyone uses TOR because TOR node IPs are public. To browse on TOR safely and privately, users must employ a VPN or TOR Bridges. A VPN encrypts traffic and minimizes a user’s chances of being realized, securing levels of privacy.
Despite using a VPN, accessing the dark web still leaves users exposed to cyberattacks. When navigating the dark web and visiting different sites, avoid downloading any files, as they likely contain malware and highly increase the chances of devices getting infected.
Dark web sites are not indexed by search engines, so there are no search engines to guide users. Browsing safely on the dark web is most effective when users have the exact URL for the website they want to visit.
The Dark Web and Cybersecurity
How to Protect Against the Dark Web
Debit and credit cards, social security numbers, and banking information are just a few examples of the personal data that is stolen and posted on the dark web. Organizations fall victim to cyberattacks as threat actors are keen on breaching corporate accounts and selling their data. Fortunately, the risks that the dark web poses to cybersecurity can be minimized with protection plans. Leverage cybersecurity measures against the dark web by following these steps.
1. Frequent security scans of the computing environment
Conduct automated scans of your computing environment frequently to identify, analyze, and mitigate risks. For example, a vulnerability scan can detect areas of the network that might be vulnerable to Common Vulnerability Exposure (CVE). Organizations conducting frequent security scans also allows IT teams to uncover zero-day vulnerabilities, unpatched devices, and other loopholes that threat actors can exploit. Other helpful security scans include penetration tests, malware scanners, database scans, source code scans, port scans, and more.
2. Multi-factor authentication
Many apps, websites, and organization have implemented the Zero Trust Security model, which assumes that anyone trying to access the network is hostile—regardless of whether they have correct login information. In a zero-trust model, users must authenticate themselves to validate their identity through codes sent to emails or phones, hardware tokens, security questions, and other means. Enabling multi-factor authentications for personal and organizational accounts adds an extra layer of security to protect against threat actors. Creating strong, unique passwords, changing them several times a year, and never reusing them is another preventative method to protect from cyber threats.
3. Ongoing security awareness training
An organization’s most valuable asset is its people, so threat actors leverage human weakness first to compromise an organization. IT security teams should develop and maintain a robust security awareness training program that educates users about the dangers of the dark web and its impact on business operations. Arming each user with consistent security awareness will reinforce cyber resilience and strengthen the organization’s security culture.
4. Develop a thorough strategy for data protection
Any company, regardless of size or sector, is vulnerable to data breaches. Security controls such as data encryption, data leakage protection, data loss policies, a virtual private network (VPN), and data leakage protections are crucial to formulate and maintain a robust data protection strategy. Endpoint Detection and Response (EDR) is a cybersecurity solution that protects data from threats that could destroy it. EDR strengthens security through continuous monitoring and gathering of data from endpoints to identify and address cyberthreats in real time.
5. Develop and test an incident response plan
Businesses should prepare an incident response plan for a cyber incident involving the dark web. This predetermined plan for addressing cyberthreats reduces vulnerabilities and strengthens recovery from potential cyberattacks. The plan should determine proper means of mitigation, which involves assigning roles and responsibilities, including steps to detect and identify cyberattacks, steps to contain and minimize damage and processes for establishing corrective countermeasures for recovery and business continuity.