How to access the dark web safely

How to Access the Dark Web Safely in 2024

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Last update: February 8, 2024

You’ll need three things: a .onion URL, Tor Browser (or another way to access the Tor network) and a VPN with a kill switch. I recommend ExpressVPN to keep you safe on the dark web — try it out free with a 30-day money-back guarantee.

Not many people understand the true nature of the dark web. Even fewer know how to access the dark web safely. So let’s start at the beginning: what is the dark web, really?

The web binds the universe together and grants strength to the Jedi. But some fall victim to fear and anger and are seduced by the dark web, becoming consumed with evil…

Wait, no. I’m thinking of the Force. Different thing.

In our galaxy, the dark web is a subset of the deep web. The deep web refers to web pages that can’t be accessed by a search engine. Making a page discoverable by a search engine is called “indexing,” and most of the deep web consists of pages that, for whatever reason, were never indexed.

If a page was intentionally hidden, it’s a different matter. For good or ill, something on these websites requires them to be concealed, accessible only with special software and specific instructions. That’s the dark web.

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I’m against the term “dark web.” It’s so dramatic that it gets in the way of understanding how this important technology impacts our everyday lives. In this article, I’d like to shine some light on the dark web, answering questions like:

Read on to learn how to safely access dark web browsers and sites, and get answers to all your other dark web questions.

How to Access the Dark Web Safely: Steps to Take Before

Before I go into how to get on the dark web, I want to start with a safety briefing. The dark web is unregulated, so there’s no lifeguard. Users browse at their own risk.

Danger on the dark web comes from two sources: cybercriminals and law enforcement. Both take advantage of the Tor network, which is the most popular method of accessing the dark web by a long shot.

Tor (which stands for The Onion Router) conceals web activity by shuffling it through a series of encrypted nodes. Since no single entity can see all the nodes at once, tracing the actions of any IP address is theoretically impossible.

There’s a big weakness in the Tor network, though. The servers your connection runs through, called “relays,” are managed by volunteers. There’s no application process for becoming a relay manager — anybody who meets the technical specs can run a Tor relay. Keeping restrictions loose ensures the Tor network has sufficient uptime.

This may be a necessary weakness given Tor’s operating model, but it should come as no surprise that law enforcement agencies and cybercriminals have taken advantage of it. Criminals run exit nodes that hijack user traffic for nefarious ends.

Meanwhile, actors with government-level resources can capture enormous numbers of relays to expose users who pass through. When the KAX17 malicious node network was at its height, any given Tor user had a 35% chance of being routed through one of its nodes.

The Tor Project, which oversees the network, does clean up malicious relays when it discovers them. But it can’t catch all of them. If you are accessing the dark web via Tor, you’ll need to take steps to protect yourself. I’ve got a few suggestions.

1. Connect via HTTPS only

Have you noticed how all the URLs that used to start with “http” changed to “https” over the last several years? HTTPS used to be rare, but now it’s so standard that browsers will warn you whenever a website doesn’t use it.

You can thank the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), those weird security nerds who are responsible for basically everything on the internet that doesn’t suck yet. In 2016, EFF encouraged hosting services to adopt the more secure HTTPS protocol, starting a trend that’s made us all safer.

So what makes HTTPS better than HTTP? To keep it simple, HTTP is a set of rules that lets browsers connect to servers using the World Wide Web. It gets connections from A to B, but does nothing to protect them.

HTTPS is the same thing, but with more digital security. It encrypts your HTTP connection and requires both sides of a web transaction to pass strict authentication requirements before decrypting. If HTTP is a standard sedan, HTTPS is an armored truck.

HTTPS gets you where you’re going safely, even if your destination is on the dark web. Remember that dark web servers communicate the same as surface web servers. They just add more protection. By only accessing HTTPS sites on the dark web, you can foil attempts by malicious relays to redirect you toward corrupted sites with scams or malware.

2. Use a VPN With a Killswitch

You should always use a virtual private network (VPN) when you’re online. Always. The reasons are manifold: VPNs hide your IP address from prying eyes, encrypt your communications, keep scammers and advertisers away, let you control your virtual location and more.

Using a VPN is even more important when accessing the dark web. Here’s why.

Tor Browser is the easiest — and often the only — way for almost everyone to reach the dark web. But not all Tor relays can be trusted, as we covered above. Many are controlled by government agents or criminals, and not being a Pokemon trainer, the Tor Project can’t catch ‘em all.

A VPN provides a critical second layer of security while using Tor. Most corrupted nodes require your IP address to do mischief, whether that’s spying on your activity or hijacking your device. If you’re using a VPN, they can’t see your real IP address. Thanks to encryption, they can’t see what you’re saying or doing, either.

Choosing the best VPN for the dark web is simple. Just look for two features:

Some of my favorite VPNs with Tor over VPN and a kill switch are ExpressVPN, Surfshark and NordVPN (which calls Tor “Onion Over VPN”).

3. Check for Malware

Even if you take the strongest precautions, only accessing HTTPS pages and always using a VPN, trouble can slip through the net. Luckily, you can catch the stragglers with a little basic hygiene.

Every time you finish a session on the dark web, run a malware scan of your entire system using a well-reviewed antivirus software. Some antiviruses also include a “sandbox” feature, where you can quarantine files downloaded from Tor until you’re sure they can be opened safely.

I recommend Bitdefender, Malwarebytes, Norton or McAfee. Stay away from Avast, AVG and Kaspersky, all of which are compromised in various ways.

What Is the Dark Web?

Before you dive into the dark web, you should first understand what it is. Two things must be true of a website for it to count as part of the dark web.

First, the website must be inaccessible by search engines. It will never show up on a Google search or any other kind. The only way to get there is to learn the URL by some other means. A dark website is like Isla de Muerta in Pirates of the Caribbean: it cannot be found except by those who already know where it is.

Second, the website must be secured in some way, most often through a .onion URL (more on that in a minute). Lots of websites aren’t indexed by search engines, but they’re not hidden on purpose — that’s what we call the deep web. A website only becomes “dark” when it’s intentionally concealed from prying eyes, usually (but not always) because of illegal activity.

Deep Web vs Dark Web

You can think of the internet as having three layers. At the top, there’s the surface web. That’s where we are now. It’s also where the vast majority of internet users will spend all their time. 

The surface web consists of web pages you can reach through a search engine. Websites join the surface web through a three-step process.

1. Crawling

Search engines use automated programs called crawlers to look for new websites. Crawlers click every link they can find, then compare each new URL against an index of known sites.

2. Indexing

Whenever a crawler discovers a site that’s not already on the list, it submits the URL to the search engine’s index. Once on the list, the site can be found by the search engine and is officially part of the surface web.

3. Serving

The search engine shows the website to anyone who submits a relevant query.

Search engine crawlers follow every link without hesitation. The only way a site won’t join the surface web is if it’s intentionally unindexed (with a “noindex” or “nofollow” HTML tag) or no links lead to it. The latter generally requires the site to be self-hosted on an isolated server.

Any website that is not found by a crawler, or not indexed by the crawlers that find it, becomes part of the deep web. It’s hard to tell how many sites are on the deep web vs the surface web. A commonly cited statistic that the deep web is over 400 times larger than the surface web comes from a white paper from 2001, which might as well be the Stone Age in internet years.

But most experts agree the deep web is quite a bit larger. Keep in mind it contains ALL content that’s sent between servers without passing by the general public first. Much of its content consists of private databases, protected legal and medical records, secure government communications and the like.

Like the surface web, the dark web is probably much smaller than the deep web, though it’s hard to tell how much smaller, especially given the amount of misinformation surrounding the topic and the rampant confusion between the deep web and dark web. It’s astounding how many websites love to toss around “shocking dark web facts” without citing sources.

Tor & Onion Addresses

I’ve already explained how the Tor network, accessed through Tor Browser, protects users by routing them through several encrypted nodes. But how does Tor make the dark web possible?

Tor software protects not just the client side, but the server side as well. Websites have IP addresses tied to the servers that host them. Using open-source Tor tools, a server owner can hide their real IP address, rendering it impossible to find out the site’s physical location and protecting it from intervention by the authorities.

A site protected this way can only be accessed through an onion address. These protected URLs start like regular ones (https://www…) but end with “.onion,” ensuring you can’t get to them except through Tor.

Onion addresses are normally only shared through encrypted communication channels, but even if an undercover cop does get their hands on one (which isn’t that hard), they won’t be able to do anything about the site without the IP address. To arrest Ross Ulbricht, the Silk Road magnate, FBI agents had to physically grab his laptop.

Why Access the Dark Web?

I’ve just spent over 2,000 words explaining that the dark web is defined by people having something to hide. Knowing that, is there any reason for a law-abiding citizen to visit?

It’s true that the dark web is a haven for criminals. It’s common for stolen identities to be sold there. Controlled drugs make up about 8% of all products exchanged. Dark sites are a refuge for extremist groups. The Tor network and onion sites are indeed used for terrible things.

Is the Dark Web Illegal?

That said, it might surprise you to learn the results of a 2016 study by Moore & Rid. Out of 2,723 dark websites that had any content, only 1,547 were illicit — just under 57%. That means nearly 43% of sites on the dark web aren’t party to criminal activity. Another study, conducted in 2020, suggested that only 6.7% of dark web users log on to look for illicit sites.

OK, yes, almost half of them aren’t criminals is not the most resounding defense. If my attorney stood up in court and said “four out of 10 things Sam does every day are legal,” I would fire them. But we can’t ignore that criminal activity also occurs on the surface web, and nobody talks about the surface web as though it’s wholly evil.

The Pros of Deep Web Content

Here are just a few examples of positive aspects of the dark web:

You may rightly ask why I’m defending a technology used for crimes, many of which are not victimless. It’s because the dark web is just technology. In practice, it’s impossible to ban the dark web without targeting the Tor network, declaring war on the individual user’s right to encryption.

How to Access Dark Websites

For all the complexity of the argument surrounding the dark web, actually reaching a site is simple. You’ll need three things: a browser that supports Tor, a VPN and a .onion URL. (You can forgo the VPN, but only in the same way you can skydive without a parachute.)

For browsers, you can’t go wrong with Tor Browser, but there are also extensions for Firefox and Chrome if you’d prefer to work in a familiar environment. Obtaining .onion URLs is more difficult — they’re controlled by their server hosts, so I can’t help you with that.

Once you’ve got everything, follow these steps.

How to Access the Dark Web and Do It Safely

And you’re done! When you’re finished, make sure to close your browser before disconnecting from your VPN.

Conclusion: Accessing Dark Web Sites & the Deep Web

It’s not up to me what you want to do with Tor Browser or the dark web, just as it doesn’t matter to me what you want with a VPN. The cornerstone of online privacy is not having to explain why you need privacy.

Some things that happen on the dark web are evil and need to be stopped. You won’t catch me shedding tears for Ross Ulbricht, for example. But other dark web activities are only “illicit” because they threaten the powers of dictators or reveal things the powerful would prefer to keep secret.

Beyond that, the term “dark web” is needlessly salacious and makes it hard to get accurate information about Tor and its related technologies. Hopefully, in this post, I’ve done what I can to fight back.

If you have any other questions about the dark web or want to mention anything I missed, let me know in the comments. Thanks for reading!

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