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How to Access the Dark Web: Step-by-Step Tutorial (and a Few Words of Caution)

Did you know that Google only shows you a glimpse of all the websites that actually exist? It’s estimated that the entire web is roughly 500 times larger than what Google returns in Google Search.

The portion of the web that most internet users browse on a daily basis is what’s known as the “surface web.” This is the part of the web that is readily accessible by the general public and is indexed by Google, Bing and other search engines.

All the websites and content that isn’t being shown on the “surface web” is generally referred to by many as the “deep web,” “dark web” or “invisible web.”

The deep web is made up of content that search engines such as Google do not index. Such data includes medical records, financial information, research papers, private forums and networks, and other content.

The dark web is web content that exists on darknets, which are overlay networks on the internet that require specialized software, configurations and authorization to access. Perhaps the best-known tool used to access the dark web is the Tor browser. (More about that later.)

It might sound weird that Google doesn’t index these pages, but it does carry some logical sense. Google’s purpose is to show the most relevant information to all of its users quickly and easily. That means that Google wants to minimize the amount of time users spend searching for certain queries.

Google considers the majority of the content on the entire web highly irrelevant and useless to its users. That’s why such a large percentage (as much as 94%) of the entire web is not returned in Google Search.

The content of all these pages is stored on Google’s servers, but it’s comprised mostly of outdated, old content; smartphone app content; journals; court records; private social media profiles and much more.

So, even though it does exist on the internet, Google doesn’t index any of these pages or content.

But, how can you get access to all these websites, pages and information on the deep web and dark web if they can’t be found through Google, Bing or Yahoo? How do you navigate these websites? Is it safe to visit these pages?

In this guide, I’ll give you the answer to these questions, as well as information about various other interesting deep web-related topics.

First, let me explain that this article is intended for users who want to use the dark web for legal and needed purposes, such as finding censored news, blocked websites and other much-needed services.

Pixel Privacy believes in digital privacy and does not believe in using it for heinous and/or illegal activities, and so the focus of this article will be on legal activities.

But before we get into that, it’s important to understand the differences between the surface web, deep web and dark web.

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Source

The Surface Web

The surface web (often referred to as the “visible web”) is the portion of the web available to the general public and indexed in the standard web search engines such as Google, Bing and Yahoo.

Typically, any reference to the Visible Web will be to common websites with a familiar internet domain extension.

Another word for domain extension is top-level domain (TLD). It’s the last part of an internet domain name, stated after the last dot. For example, Google.com and PixelPrivacy.com both belong to the “.com” top-level domain.

So, sites that contain a domain extension like .com, .org, .net, .biz, .info, etc. can be found on the surface web. In addition, the content on the pages don’t need any special or custom configuration to access.

In 2013, Google said that they knew about 30 million pages. According to Search Engine Land, in 2016 Google knew about a staggering 130 trillion individual pages (and this number is growing constantly). This was also Google’s latest official update on how many pages are in their database.

So, that means that the number of pages increased by over 100 trillion in just over 3 years. Hypothetically speaking, Google may be aware of well over 200 trillion individual pages (these are obviously NOT all indexed in the search engine).

As of late April 2018, the total number of pages Google has indexed is around 48 billion individual pages

If we make a simple calculation by using the total number of indexed pages by Google and the total number of known pages (my estimation of total known pages at this point), we can guess what percentage is indexed.

48 billion x 100(%) /  200 trillion = 0.024

That means that only 0.024% of all the known pages are findable in Google’s search engine. The users only have access to a fraction of the available data and web pages.

The Deep Web

The majority of the web is called the “deep web” (often referred to as the “invisible” or “hidden” web). The deep web is basically all the content that you can’t find using Google or Yahoo search.

Everyone can access the deep web. You don’t need special tools or a special browser like you need to access the dark web (more about that later). Anyone can access the deep web by using specialized search engines, dedicated web directories and other sources that can help you find the data or information.

Here’s a list of deep web search engines:

For example, you can only find your Facebook friends, photos and other information by logging into your Facebook account and finding the information there. On the deep web, you can find such “private” information on web pages.

You can also find email messages, online bank statements and much more information on the deep web – information that is usually private and inaccessible by the public on the surface web.

Government institutions, researchers, academics and large enterprises store vast amounts of data on the deep web, but it’s impossible to access by the general public without using one of the deep web search engines I mentioned above.

The deep web contains sites and pages that are often prevented from being indexed by search engines and contain unlinked content. Such content is created by dynamic web pages. It can also reside in web archives, non-HTML pages and so forth.

For example, the deep web is often a platform used by political activists who own a blog. But it also contains other news and religious sites, private discussion forums and medical records.

You could compare the deep web with our knowledge about the oceans. Although oceans cover more than 70% of our planet, we have only explored 5% of it. That’s only a fraction of what’s out there, which is identical to what’s available to the general public on the surface web.

The University of California, Berkeley researched the size of the deep web. Their research estimated the size of the deep web to be around 7.5 petabytes. To put that number into perspective: 7.5 petabytes is 7,500 terabytes, and the surface web contains 19 terabytes. As I mentioned previously, 19 terabytes is only 0.253% of the deep web.

The Dark Web

The dark web (often referred to as the “dark net,” “black web” or “black net”) is a small section of the deep web that is hidden and kept inaccessible to regular internet users on purpose.

Unlike the surface and deep web, you can’t access the dark web via a standard or specialized search engine. To access the dark web, you’ll need a specific set of tools – more about that later in the step-by-step section.

The dark web is infamous for containing sites such as Silk Road and other marketplaces where users could potentially buy drugs and/or weapons, stolen credit cards, IDs and much more.

Silk Road became one of the most famous online black markets on the dark web for illegally selling drugs.

But human trafficking, child pornography, money laundering and assassinations are also examples of the darkest corners on the dark web.

While I know that none of my readers are looking to engage in any of the activities I’ve mentioned, I felt that it was important for my readers to be aware of the dangers that lurk on the dark web.

The dark web addresses are a randomly-scrambled sequence that generates URLs, mostly hard to remember ones. For example, the URL of Silk Road is rather unintelligible and may look something like “gan4arvj452janndj4a76.onion”.

The power of the dark web is the anonymity factor. Absolutely no one knows who’s surfing on the dark web, who is selling, who is buying or anything like that – as long as you take the correct safety and online privacy precautions.

The users of the dark web are typically aiming to block governments from snooping on them. This can often be for political reasons, but also because they may be involved in illegal activities, such as the ones listed above.

However, not all usage of the dark web is for illegal intent. Social networks, such as Facebook, have created dark web versions of their sites to address privacy problems related to their surface web versions. ExpressVPN has created a .onion version of its website to allow greater privacy and anonymity for Tor browser users.

Who Uses the Dark Web?

You can’t access the dark web with a normal browser. Those who access the dark web do so via the Tor (The Onion Router) browser.

The core principle of the Tor network was first developed by U.S. Naval Research Laboratory mathematicians and computer scientists in the mid-1990s. The U.S. Army developed “onion routing” to protect intelligence communications online.

The purpose was to protect U.S. army soldiers and agents in the field, but also politicians who held secret meetings and conversations, which contained the highest security measures.

The dark web is a very popular platform for journalists, political bloggers and political news publishers, and in particular, those living in countries where censorship shields most of the internet.

People in these countries potentially face political imprisonment, and freedom of speech is not absolute, such as in Iran, where users who express opposition to the mullahs running the country are harassed and/or jailed.

Especially for these people, the dark web is the perfect platform to communicate and publish information without having to worry about imprisonment or any other form of retribution.

The dark web is also a haven for whistleblowers and information-leakers. For example, Edward Snowden uses the Tor network.

The same anonymity that publishers enjoy on the dark web can be utilized by users who want to read the available information. Again, people who live in countries where the freedom of the internet is limited, for example in China, can really benefit from using Tor.

Lastly, the dark web is also used by activists and revolutionaries (like Anonymous). The dark web serves as a platform where activists can organize gatherings in secret, without the fear of giving away their plans or position to the government.

We’ve also previously mentioned the “dark users” that use the dark web for illegal reasons, but the less said about them, the better.

As you are now familiar with the 3 different sections within the entire world wide web, let’s take a closer look at how you can access the dark web anonymously.

Step-by-Step: How to Access the Dark Web

The dark web is a decentralized web, which means that the data is stored on many different servers around the world.

The majority of the users on the dark web use the Tor (The Onion Router) browser. A vast number of URLs have domain endings such as “.onion,” which means that the URLs are only accessible by Tor users.

The Tor browser is available for Windows, MacOS and Linux operating systems.

So, to get into the Tor network, follow the steps I’ve listed below.

1. First, Install a Good VPN

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It’s important to arm yourself with a good VPN (Virtual Private Network) when you want to enter the dark web to protect your privacy and anonymity.

The dark web is built to do things anonymously, but only if you take actions to maintain your privacy. It’s especially important to take your privacy seriously if, strictly out of curiosity, you want to browse the market places on the dark web. (But seriously, stay out of there. Nothing good or legal is sold on dark web websites – that’s what Amazon is for.)

It’s not a secret that ISPs (Internet Service Providers) and the FBI are tracking Tor users. Obviously not all the users, but you never know whether someone might be looking into you.

Your ISP can’t see which websites you’re visiting on the dark web when you’re using Tor, but they might be able to predict or assume you are using Tor if they analyze your monitored internet traffic.

But again, your ISP won’t be able to see any of the content you’re reading or what you are sending and receiving through the Tor network.

When you install a VPN, all of your activities on the dark web will be hidden from unwanted snoops from your ISP or the FBI. The VPN is a second layer of extra protection, on top of the protection that the Tor network already offers.

That means that when Tor is compromised, or perhaps there’s a new vulnerability exploit in the Tor network, a VPN will still protect your privacy. The compromised Tor exploit might trace back to you, but then again, your VPN will lead it somewhere else – which makes it impossible to be traced back to you.

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Additionally, VPNs protect you from hackers who might be after your personal information or payment details. (And hackers are a big problem, especially on Dark Web websites. Read more about this in the “Words of Caution” section.)

It’s important to choose a VPN based on a few key points. First, it’s essential that your VPN is not keeping any logs. Second, the VPN must be compatible with Tor. Third, a VPN should be fast.

There are several other things to look for in a good VPN. Want to know more? Read my in-depth guide on VPNs if you’d like to have more information on the topic.

Check out my article about the best VPNs for Tor to see my top picks, and why!

2. Download the Tor Browser

It’s impossible to access the dark web with a regular browser like Chrome or Safari.

Instead, you need to get the Tor browser to access the dark web. Make sure that when you download the Tor file, it’s from their official website.

Before you download the Tor browser, remember to activate your VPN first!

So, once you’ve activated your VPN and your privacy is secured, it’s time to visit Tor’s official download page.

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Then, simply click the operating system that you are using and download the file.

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3. Install the Tor Browser

Now that you’ve completed the download, it’s time to install the Tor browser on your device. Simply double-click the downloaded file in your download folder.

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Choose the folder where you want to store Tor’s installation files, and choose “extract.”

Note for Mac users:

You won’t be able to run the “TorBrowser” if you disabled installations of unidentified developers.

  1. Go to System Preferences
  2. Click on “Security & Privacy”
  3. Click on “Open Anyway” at the bottom of the page

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4. A confirmation pop-up will show. Click on “Open.”

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4. Start the Tor Browser

It’s time to fire up the engines! Start the Tor browser by double-clicking on “Start Tor Browser” or “TorBrowser” (for Mac users).

When you open the Tor browser for the first time, you have to click “Connect.”

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Finally, the Tor browser will open up a browser window. From this point onwards, you can enjoy complete anonymity and security while being able to access “.onion” websites and other dark web browser domains.

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How to Navigate the Dark Web

Since you’ve now installed the Tor browser, you can safely browse dark web websites and other (previously) hidden websites.

But, if you are planning to do more than just browse Tor sites and, for example, you plan to purchase goods via the Tor network (for your own good, stick to the legal stuff), it’s important to take some extra precautions.

If you want to buy something on the dark web, it’s a best practice to create a fake identity. I strongly urge you that if you’re looking to purchase items on the web, stick to websites like Amazon, where there is at least a way to resolve issues with unreceived items and such.

However, if you must buy items from the dark web, set up a secure, encrypted email with CounterMail or ProtonMail. For more information, read more about the most secure email service providers in my other post.

Then, you want to create an anonymous Bitcoin wallet.

Next, disable Javascript in your Tor browser to prevent malicious scripts from attacking your browser sessions. You can disable Javascript by clicking on the green onion icon in the search bar. Then, click “Security Settings.”

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In the next window, drag the left slider all the way up to “Safest.” On the right side, you can read that JavaScript will be automatically disabled on all sites.

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The last thing you have to do is to start researching vendors and determine what marketplace is a possible vendor to buy the products from.

Obviously, since these websites don’t show up in the Google search engine, it can be a relatively hard task to find them.

However, there are several “.onion” search engines like “onion.city,” “onion.to” and “notevil” that you can use to find suitable marketplaces.

Another great source to find and explore dark web marketplaces or other sections is to visit Reddit’s resourceful forum. You can look for information on /r/deepweb, /r/TOR, or /r/onions, of which the latter is useful to find hidden wikis and more. Many of these Reddits have rules prohibiting linking to illegal sites and services, so you won’t find anything illegal there.

But remember, it’s essential to take all the necessary and important security steps before entering such sites on the dark web. As mentioned before, your ISP and government institutions are not able to see what sites you visit on the Tor network, but they can probably see that you use Tor.

(You can also find yourself at risk from hackers, malware and other hazards. For more information, see the “Words of Caution When Using the Dark Web” section below.)

That alone might already raise suspicion and place you under special surveillance. Some reports say the FBI will simply label you a “criminal” once they’re aware you’re using the Tor browser.

In addition, a newly-approved law by the U.S. Supreme Court will allow the FBI to search and seize any computer that’s using the Tor browser or VPN. Rule No.41 allows a federal judge to issue a search and seize warrant for any person who is using anonymity software like Tor.

All of the above is why I strongly recommend using the dark web not for access to iffy or outright illegal trading of goods and services, but instead to gain access to information you might normally be blocked from.

As I mentioned previously, the dark web is quite popular with journalists, political bloggers and news publishers, and others who run the risk of imprisonment in countries like Iran and others.

Users who wish to gain access to such information are protected by the same anonymity the publishers of the content enjoy. Well-known news websites, such as ProPublica, have launched deep websites. Meanwhile, Facebook also offers dark web access to their social network.

Alternative Anonymous Networks

There are alternatives to the “.onion” websites. These alternatives aren’t necessarily safer or cleaner, they are merely alternatives for users wishing to keep their online activities as safe as possible.

I2P

An alternative to Tor is I2P. I2P can only be used to access hidden sites that are only available on the I2P network.

That means that I2P can’t visit “.com” or “.onion” sites because the network is not connected to these servers. In fact, I2P designed its own domain ending structure, called “eepsites.”

The advantages of I2P are based on a much faster and more reliable network. Additionally, I2P doesn’t rely on hidden directories that serve as a resource for .onion domains.

Lastly, the configuration process is quite difficult. You’ll be required to manually configure I2P through your router’s console and select ports. In addition, you have to manually adjust browser proxy settings.

Freenet

Freenet is similar to I2P – you can only connect to sites within Freenet’s own network. The platform offers two modes: darknet and opennet.

In darknet mode, you can select friends on the network and only connect and share dark web content with them. This enables individuals to form groups and only share content in a highly anonymous network of darknet users who they know.

In opennet mode, the network will automatically assign you to other users on Freenet’s network.

Opennet connections are easier to use, but darknet connections provide more security against attackers on the network.

On top of that, the installation process of Freenet is rather easy. Simply download the file, install the software, and you’re ready to use its web-based interface.

Words of Caution When Using Dark Web Sites

It’s no secret that the dark web can be a tricky and dangerous place for the general internet user. In this section, I’ll be covering the risks of the dark web.

Due to its absolute anonymity for knowledgeable users, the chance of running into bad people is also realistic, as they can operate relatively freely without the fear of getting caught doing something unlawful.

These high levels of anonymity increase the opportunity for the “bad guys” to sell drugs, stolen IDs, credit cards, weapons and many more compromised products or information.

Unfortunately, it’s also a place where the bad guys can offer their services – for example, hackers or hitmen.

That’s not all. The dark web is also a place for scammers to attract vulnerable and unwitting victims. The platform is also used by governmental cyber departments to identify and track potential criminals or offenders. This is made easy, because the anonymity works both ways. You can never be sure who’s really behind the other end of the line.

Malware

There’s a significant risk to dark web users of being exposed to malware (malicious software) infections. There are several programs that hackers frequently use on the dark web.

  1. Vawtrak: Its infrastructure was designed to get access to financial accounts.
  2. Nionspy: A type of keylogger, logging keystrokes and combinations. It obtains documents, and some of the advanced versions are even able to register audio and video material. 
  3. Skynet: Hackers use this type of malware to steal Bitcoin. They can also use it to infect computers and use the infected computers in a botnet. Botnets can be used to launch DDoS attacks or to spread other types of malware.

If you want to prevent getting infected on the dark web, keep your Tor browser updated to the latest version available, disable JavaScript, Flash and other plug-ins, and use common sense.

Marketplaces

The dark web is home to both legal and illegal products. You can either sell or buy goods on the dark web, but both present difficulties.

When you buy an item on the dark web, you won’t get a tracking code, you can’t be sure whether you’ll actually receive the goods, the seller may also suddenly disappear, the seller might be an impersonator but is actually a law enforcement employee, or the seller might have agreed on a deal with the FBI and is now active as an informer.

In any case, I strongly recommend avoiding purchases on the dark web. If the product or service you’re attempting to buy is illegal, you’re running the risk of arrest. If legal items are what you’re in the market for, you’re better protected against fraud and theft by using a site like Amazon.

Government Surveillance

In addition to the brief introduction of “fake” marketplaces on the dark web, dark web users visiting political sites on the Tor network should realize that government-funded cyber teams are on the lookout for such users.

This type of government surveillance applies mostly to countries with environments that are hostile to free speech.

Government cyber teams can take such websites down, arrest the owners and then use the website to track and follow users that show activity on the website.

In combination with that data, and data gathered by other methods and/or tactics may in fact lead to complete exposure and could eventually lead to the police standing at your doorstep.

This means that as with any online resource, be careful. Be wary of any new marketplaces popping up on the dark web. Check around with other users and ask if they know anything about the new marketplace.

More Ways to Stay Safe on the Dark Web

Plan Ahead Before Connecting

Before connecting to the dark web, make a solid plan. Keep in mind what you’re looking for, find that information, and disconnect from the dark web. As enticing as it might be, don’t follow links to other parts of the dark web.

Don’t Provide Personal Information

While this is good advice for any type of web browsing, be particularly careful not to offer up any personal details, such as your credit card info or email address. Use cryptocurrency to buy anything, and use a disposable email address for any type of communication on the dark web.

Use a Dedicated Browsing Machine

If you can use a different machine for your dark web endeavours, it’s best to do so.

The advantage of using a dedicated computer just to browse the dark web is that your main computer isn’t exposed to any of the threats or risks tied to entering the dark web. In case of an attack, you can be sure that any of the data or information stored on your main computer will be safe.

If it isn’t possible to use a dedicated machine, use a USB stick or DVD to burn a bootable copy of Tails, which is a live Linux distribution that includes the Tor Browser and that can be used on almost any computer that supports booting from the USB or DVD drive.

By using Tails, you remove the risk of corrupting your computer’s normal operating system with viruses or malware.

Be Vigilant When Roaming Around the Dark Web

Anyone can access the dark web, and it’s not that complicated to do so. Just remember, if you want to explore the dark web, be very careful.

Simply accessing the dark web and using the Tor browser may already raise government suspicion.

Also, there’s a vast amount of unsavory content on the dark web, as well as a significantly high number of hackers and scammers looming on the platform.

If you decide to enter the dark web, always make sure to take all the necessary online privacy precautions. Don’t just click and open random pages, files or emails – always be vigilant when roaming around the dark web.

Last but not least, we here at Pixel Privacy never condone illegal activity. Never break the law. Keep in mind that offensive material is always just a click or two away. Browse the dark web safely, and use it for legal purposes only!

Dark Web FAQ

Is It Illegal to Enter the Dark Web?

t is not illegal to enter the dark web. However, you must be careful to avoid the illegal activities that are available on the dark web, such as certain pornographic materials and the sale of illegal items and substances, including drugs, stolen information and merchandise, and weapons, to name a few.

Is the Dark Web, Deep Web and Dark Net All the Same?

While the dark web, deep web and dark net are all different, they do overlap in certain areas.

The deep web is content that search engines such as Google do not index. This can include medical records, research papers, private forums and networks.

The dark web is content that exists on dark nets, which require specialized software (like the Tor Browser), configurations and authorization to access. These can include the previously mentioned illegal offerings, but can also include ultra private information designed to be shared only with certain parties.

What Percentage of the Internet Is Dark Web?

As noted by Andy Greenberg at Wired, while the deep web makes up approximately 90% of the internet, the dark web makes up only around 0.1% and is designed to provide anonymity for users and site owners.


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