27th August 2015
It has been described as the dark underbelly of the internet, the online place where paedophiles find what they are looking for, and where data from the cheating spouses’ website Ashley Madison was leaked. But what is the “dark web”?
And how does it differ from the “dark net” and “deep web”, if at all?
The dark net
The so-called dark net is a set of internet connections, deep down in the many networks that are not widely known and even less easy to access.
This invisible network enables information to be passed around in tight group of users, who go behind the backs of internet servers in order to avoid detection.
Roger Clarke from the Research School of Computer Science at the Australian National University said dark net users relied on local networks to get a “message from A to B”.
“Supposing we chained everybody’s next door neighbours’ wi-fi networks together, and supposing I had a mate on the other side of town,” he said.
“And I managed to find a way to send a message to him by having it go to my next door neighbour’s network and then on to the next one, and so on.
“This message would not be visible to the Telstras and the Optuses of Australia, and the other people who run the backbone networks in Australia.”
Yesterday, it was revealed by the ABC that a global online child abuse network which had been infiltrated and dismantled by the Australian police had been operating on the dark net.
Use of the dark net may be partnered with the use of something called the dark web.
To remain anonymous, a person may obscure both the network the information is travelling on (the dark net), and the application they are using (the dark web).
The dark web
In its most basic form, the dark web is a collection of websites, each of which is only visible to people who use specific crypto software, such as Tor, to keep the website difficult to find and help keep its users anonymous.
What it does is disguises where a message came from if you are in the receiving end or disguises where a message went to if you’re on the sending end.Roger Clarke from the Research School of Computer Science at the Australian National University
Forget about Googling a term, or typing key search terms into some other web browser to access the dark web.
The software offers very strong encryption and safety layering that provides (but does not always guarantee) anonymity for users. The more layers you have, the more anonymous you become.
This encryption means the websites cannot be indexed or searched by outsiders, and the anonymity means it is virtually impossible to find out who is behind the site.
Due to this level of anonymity, the dark web is most commonly used for criminal activity such as illegal drug trafficking, seen with the infamous Silk Road site.
Last week, hackers also made use of the dark web, releasing a huge cache of data – including customer information – stolen from Ashley Madison onto a “dark” site.
Dr Clarke said encryption software was the key to the dark web.
“What it does is disguises where a message came from if you are in the receiving end or disguises where a message went to if you’re on the sending end,” he said.
Deep web vs dark web
The deep web is an overarching term commonly used for the hard-to-access parts of the internet, such as the dark web, and refers to all the web pages that search engines such as Google cannot find.
Very often you are dealing with criminals when you are dealing with the dark net or the dark web.Director of the Australian Centre for Cyber Security, Jill Slay
In simple terms, there are two webs: the visible one, where people use search-engines to find websites; and the invisible one, or deep web.
Unlike the dark web, you do not need any encryption software to enter the deep web, but those wanting to remain anonymous would use encryption software.
The deep web gives access to the different dark web collections.
Dr Clarke said a way to better understand the deep web was to think about internet banking.
Internet banking requires a person to have a secret password which is hidden in a “dark” place by the bank.
“We know that our data is not readily available to anybody else. Our information is hidden away in a dark corner where no one else can find it,” he said.
Who uses the dark web?
There are a number of reasons why someone may use the dark web, and not all of them are illegal.
People use it to speak without being tracked by the Government, an organisation or another person. For example, whistleblowers, journalists communicating with their sources, or political activists and dissidents.
It took 30 seconds to download the program, another minute or two to find the link to the website and then you just put the link in to the program and then you are done.Former dark web user “John”
People in countries run by totalitarian governments use the dark web as a platform to communicate and share files without being monitored.
But the director of the Australian Centre for Cyber Security, Jill Slay, said despite the legitimate reasons for the dark web’s use, many of the users were criminals.
“As soon as you get something which really obscures your identity and makes you anonymous criminals will use it,” she said.
“Criminals will essentially be there, probably be more than the genuine user who is just using it for private purposes.
“Very often you are dealing with criminals when you are dealing with the dark net or the dark web. It is ways of using the internet as a carrier of other technology.”
How easy is it to access?
Despite all the confusing terminology, Dr Clarke and Professor Slay agree it is very easy to access the dark web.
You just have to “know what you are looking for”.
To enter a website on the dark web, you need software such as Tor to give you anonymity, the exact URL for the website and then the password to enter.
John, who wishes not to be identified, said it was safer using the dark web to buy illegal drugs than doing so in person.
“It took 30 seconds to download the program, another minute or two to find the link to the website, and then you just put the link in to the program and then you are done,” he said.
Before the original site shut down, he used Silk Road 1.0 to buy drugs such as marijuana and ecstasy pills.
John said it was a safer alternative than going to a physical drug dealer.
“It is a much better alternative than going down to your local weed dealer and having to worry about getting stabbed or anything bad happening,” he said.
“You literally go to this website. It is literally like eBay for drugs.”
John said he stopped using the deep web two years ago in fear of getting “busted”.
“The majority of stuff on the deep web is bad, but the tool itself is not an inherently bad tool; it is just if you give people anonymity it is going to be used for good and bad things,” he said.
The takeaway message is that the dark web is only one platform within the deep web, which law enforcement finds hard to penetrate and so is used by criminals.
Many different branches exist, with people using hundreds of layers of security to protect their identity.