What actually is the dark web?

The internet isn't just about search engines and the big ones Web browser-Diversity of callable digital world, which can easily be used from the computer or smartphone. The other widespread areas of application, such as e.g. B. Apps with server and database access, smart speakers with online-enabled language assistants, smart TVs with streaming services and the like do not yet cover the entire range. What many people hardly know and probably never use is the Darknet. It is known from headlines dealing with drugs, guns, hacking and other illegal activities. But there is also journalism, civilized discussions, normal chats and other legal activities on the Darknet.

What is the Darknet and does it only consist of illegal offers? What are journalism, activism and private communication doing in the secret part of the internet? Answers to these and other questions can be found here!
What is the Darknet and does it only consist of illegal offers? What are journalism, activism and private communication doing in the secret part of the internet? Answers to these and other questions can be found here!

Preview: Distinction between Clear Web, Deep Web and Darknet

The name "Darknet", which translates as "dark network" or "dark network", already indicates that the connections established with it are hidden. The information, data and files exchanged in the shadow of the well-known Internet can be of the most diverse nature, as well as in the Clear Web and in the Deep Web. But it is worth differentiating between these Internet departments:

  • clear web: The area of ​​the Internet that is publicly visible and can usually be accessed easily via search engines. Well-known chat options, social media, online shops, news, e-mail offers and much more find their place here. Due to the simple as well as privately and commercially most interesting use, the Clear Web is the most well-known part of the Internet, even if it is actually the smallest.
  • Deep Web: According to the BSI, the Deep Web represents the largest part of the Internet at around 90%. It is also a public and legally usable area, but for which certain access permits and verifications are required. Streaming servers, corporate databases, cloud storage, and the like can be cited as examples.
  • darknet: A part of the Internet that cannot be reached by conventional means (search engines and most web browsers) and is 400 to 500 times larger than the Clear Web (excluding the Deep Web), depending on the source. Here, the communication is usually encrypted and carried out anonymously if possible, partly through direct connections without client service.

The technology behind the Darknet: Surf and communicate anonymously

The dark web is a shielded area of ​​the internet that cannot be accessed via conventional search engines and browsers. It is therefore not publicly indexed. Most of the use of the Darknet is based on the TOR network (TOR = The Onion Router). This technology was developed to transmit data anonymously and shielded from the public. 

The English word "onion" stands for "onion" and describes how requests and transmitted data are forwarded in several layers. They are routed through different servers in different locations (similar to a VPN) to make the source and destination more difficult for third parties to determine.

In addition to TOR websites for several users who are not known to one another, the Darknet also includes peer-to-peer connections that build on existing internet connections as an overlay network. Here, as well as in so-called friend-to-friend connections, individual users or their systems are connected to one another for data exchange. 

This ensures a non-visible and therefore very secure connection for the transmission of information. Investigative journalism in precarious areas and leaks of information under strict source protection can be cited as examples of application. But private communication and file exchange away from commercial and well-known offers is also possible.

Darknet story: Professional solution used privately

The Darknet as a basic technology for secure data exchange that is not recognizable by others was developed in the 1970s to differentiate it from ARPANET. In the 1990s, it was adopted by the US military for off-the-public-internet communications. Building on this, there were already private developers from the year 2000 who dealt with the construction and use of Darknet connections and the creation of non-indexed websites. 

For example, Ian Clarke's Freenet software appeared in 2000 and the first version of TOR in 2002. Despite legitimate use cases such as journalism, research, anonymous communication from dictatorial states, etc., the media focused early on on headlines about illegal activities: pirated films and music, cracked programs, weapons and drugs.

Starting in 2009, the then brand new internet currency “Bitcoin” became a hit on the dark web. Of course, although it was also offered and discussed on the regular web, the prospect of an anonymous and cumulative online payment method was also an interesting thing on the dark web. A few years later, around 2013, the cryptocurrency made headlines due to an extreme rise in value. As a result, Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies quickly became available and usable on a large scale on the regular web. 

Since then, reports on the Darknet have mostly been about illegal arms trade, dealing in drugs (e.g. about the shop called "Silkroad" or the dealer "Shiny Flakes", who was featured in the Netflix series "How to Sell Drugs Online (Fast )” was portrayed) to illegal pornography, depictions of abuse, terrorism and other cruel things. While these parts of the dark web naturally deserve to be tracked down and excavated, the focus on these usage areas ensured that the dark web as a whole was given a “bad” stamp.

The "bright" places of the Darknet should not be underestimated

Even if the dark web is sometimes about drugs, hacking, crime and violence, weapons and similar things, there are also many offers for reliable reporting from countries and regions with a questionable view of journalism and research. The transmission of information and observations from totalitarian or dictatorial states with a monitored population can often only be realized through the use of encrypted VPN connections and / or darknet connections to ensure the security of those involved.

The same applies to political activism, which is directed against oppression, discrimination and other restrictions as well as political despotism. Organizations and activists can use the dark web to interact as anonymously as possible (depending on additional precautions) and with encrypted communication lines. Whistle-blowing falls into a similar area, i.e. the passing on of information that is actually secret but important for the detection or criminal prosecution of persons, groups, companies and institutions. The organization "Reporters Without Borders" supports and recommends the use of TOR in unsafe areas.

An example of the secure transmission of information to media are Darknet mailboxes, which are implemented with SecureDrop. The free communication platform SecureDrop, originally published under the name DeadDrop, makes it possible to carry out journalism and whistle-blowing with the press as the direct addressee. For example, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian and similar large newspapers have set up dark web mailboxes with SecureDrop in order to be able to receive investigative material without endangering their sources through the digital communication channels.

This is in the Darknet: Analysis of 13.600 pages from 2016

If you look for public data and analysis on the dark web (and have limited resources for it), you will find only fairly general and sometimes outdated data. So if you are looking for more in-depth and above all up-to-date information in addition to the information outlined here, you should take your time for further research. While researching this article, I personally came across a statistic from 2016, which gives the following information on the content of 13.600 examined pages under the title "That's in the Darknet" (values ​​are rounded up, so the total is more than 100%) :

  • File sharing / file exchange: 29%
  • Leaked data: 28%
  • Financial Fraud: 12%
  • News media: 10%
  • Advertising: 6%
  • Discussion forums: 5%
  • Drugs: 4%
  • Internet/Computing: 3%
  • Hacking: 3%
  • Pornography: 1%
  • Weapons: 0,3%
  • Other: 0,1%

Always look at darknet sources in context

When describing and disclosing the dark web, there will always be a certain weighting. In this article, I did not go into specific illegal activities, but rather focused on the legal uses of the Darknet. My goal was to demystify the dark web and create a counterbalance to lurid headlines that mostly refer to illegal activities. However, this should not be swept under the carpet.

So always pay attention to where reports, messages and analyzes come from and whether a certain agenda is being pursued. I don't want to follow an agenda to give you an opinion, which is why I also show you all the sources used here at the end of this article. These look at the different areas of the Darknet and map it with different weightings. So if you include them all in your own consideration, you can get a comprehensive picture:

  • German Wikipedia entry on the subject: Here
  • German Wikipedia entry on the Tor network: Here
  • "That's in the Darknet" (2016) at Statista: Here
  • English Wikipedia list of military inventions: Here
  • "The Dark Web: A Short History" by Foreign Policy: Here
  • "Investigative Journalism: The Light Side of the Dark Web" by Deutschlandfunk: Here
  • "Darknet: Where there is shadow, there is light" by Deutsche Welle (DW): Here
  • "Darknet and Deep Web - we bring light into the dark" from the BSI: Here
  • "The not so dark side of the darknet: a qualitative study" (2018) at Springer Link: Here
  • Website of Reporters Without Borders with information about Darknet and Tor: Here
  • "Postfach im Darknet" by Menschenmachen Medien (ver.di magazine): Here

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15 Responses to “What actually is the Darknet?”

  1. Interesting article.
    But after the Darknet made your mouth water, there isn't even a rudimentary guide on how to get there :-(
    Or did I miss something?

    1. So basically, you can just download the Tor browser and then access dark web sites (that is, the DarkWeb). Once you've launched Tor, you can then visit the ".onion" links, which will only give you an error message in a normal browser. Here is a list of sites you can then browse to in Tor:

      - Daniel - http://donionsixbjtiohce24abfgsffo2l4tk26qx464zylumgejukfq2vead.onion/onions.php
      – ProPublica – https://www.propub3r6espa33w.onion
      - Ahmia - http://msydqstlz2kzerdg.onion
      – DuckDuckGo – https://3g2upl4pq6kufc4m.onion
      – rise-up – http://nzh3fv6jc6jskki3.onion
      – Hidden Answers – http://answerszuvs3gg2l64e6hmnryudl5zgrmwm3vh65hzszdghblddvfiqd.onion
      – Goal Metrics – http://rougmnvswfsmd4dq.onion
      – ZeroBin – http://zerobinqmdqd236y.onion
      -Imperial Library- http://xfmro77i3lixucja.onion
      - Comic Book Library - http://r6rfy5zlifbsiiym.onion
      - tunnels - http://62gs2n5ydnyffzfy.onion, http://74ypjqjwf6oejmax.onion

      Since the Tor Browser does not warn of malware or the like and the DarkWeb is of course a playground for criminals, you should be careful what you do and surf on there.
      On a Mac, I might even create a separate user (without admin rights) and then install Tor in this user profile. Then you have an extra "layer of security" between your real account and the DarkWeb.

      I think I'll write an article on how to get in and what's the best way to avoid taking or minimizing risk.

      1. very interesting! Thanks.

        "I think I'll write an article on how to get in and what's best to not take risk or minimize it"

        I think that's an excellent idea, to put it mildly (and build up some moral pressure :)

        Maybe there will be someone here - or two - who will say me-too

        1. Hello Dieter! I have no idea how old she is. I quickly copied them together from other websites since I'm not a dark web user. But you didn't open the link in the normal browser either, did you? Because every .onion link there is a page not found error.

    2. Hello Falk,

      As Jens has already written, a separate contribution is conceivable for access and use of the Darknet. And certainly more practical.

      This article should first make the topic tangible and disenchant the “mystery” Darknet a bit. Mixing the different views, perspectives and sources with one guide would not only have led to an extremely long article (as already written by Jens: one should not only offer “five steps for Darknet access”, but also information on possible effects and corresponding precautionary measures), but would also have become too big a mishmash thematically.

      Best regards

      1. Yes, that would/will be a hell of a lot of work, even if you limit yourself to a minimum that is still usable, that's clear to me.

        So it certainly wasn't the case that I wanted to complain in any way, I just wanted to say: "More of the good stuff, please" ;-)

        1. Hi Falk! I don't think that was a quibble either. We welcome constructive criticism and ideas for additions. So please keep it up. 😊

  2. In this context, it may be interesting for some that Google is also taking on the topic of Darknet. Today I received the email:
    “Now included with your Google One subscription: Dark Web Report
    Falk, as you may know, there are corners of the internet where people sell stolen data while disguising their identities - these dark corners are referred to as the "dark web". If your personal data is found there, you will receive a notification and recommendations on how to proceed.
    Thats how it works
    Find your personal information, like your Gmail address, date of birth, and phone number
    You can choose what data to search for at any time by editing your monitoring profile
    If your data is found on the Dark Web, you will receive instructions on how to proceed”

    You can then provide a lot of personal information, as a kind of subscription, and Google will look to see if it shows up anywhere on the dark web.

    1. Hello Falk,

      yes, such checks regarding compromised data are available from several providers. Safari can also indicate when a password stored in the keychain has been stolen and has appeared somewhere. I believe some network tools like VPNs and anti-malware apps can also keep an eye out for specific data. I'm not surprised that Google now offers this. To be honest, I thought they would have implemented this a long time ago.

      Best regards

      1. “Safari can also indicate when a password stored in the keychain has been stolen and has appeared somewhere. I believe some network tools like VPNs and anti-malware apps can also keep an eye out for specific data”

        Well, for people like you, that might be the right thing to do. But not for "Mac for Dummies" people like me, and that's where the friendly Google interface helps.

    2. By “subscription” I mean that Google will then use some mechanism to check whether data from my profile appears on the dark web.

    3. I'm rather wondering whether the entered data might be saved somewhere on Google. This is a very effective way of collecting personal data. 😂

      1. As a pragmatist, I have far fewer problems with that than I should have, politically correct...
        After all, the registration office also has a lot of personal data about me.
        By the way, I always tell myself that whoever puts effort into the data of a completely insignificant person like me must have a shot in the head... 🤣

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