IT is the shadowy underbelly of the internet, used to hide illegal activity online.
Only accessible via special software, the dark web has become a major problem for global law enforcement agencies. But what is it, where did it come from and how does it work?
What is the dark web?
The internet is actually made up of three different layers: the surface web, the deep web and the dark web.
The top layer, the surface web, are web pages that show up using search engines such as Google – like The Sun website that you’re looking at right now.
The deep web are web pages which search engines can’t access and are therefore hidden, accessed via passwords and authorisation.
Any time you log into an account you’re accessing deep web content that won’t show up on a search engine.
For example, work intranets, password-protected areas of online banking and draft blog posts are all stored on the deep web.
This means that if someone was to Google your name, your banking information or Amazon wishlist won’t show up in the results.
The dark web is a network of untraceable online activity and websites on the internet. They cannot be found using search engines and to access them you need to use specific software, configurations or have authorisation. They are used by lots of different people to keep their web activity hidden.
Where did the dark web come from?
The dark web was actually created by the US government to allow spies to exchange information completely anonymously.
US military researchers developed the technology, known as Tor (The Onion Router) in the mid-1990s and released it into the public domain for everyone to use.
The reason was so that they could stay anonymous – it would be harder to distinguish the government’s messages between spies if thousands of other people were using the same system for lots of different things. Tor now hosts roughly 30,000 hidden sites.
It’s called The Onion Router because it uses the technique of onion routing – making websites anonymous through layers of encryption. Most websites are also hosted on the .onion domain.
Is the dark web illegal?
The dark web isn’t illegal in the UK or US.
That’s partly because the dark web isn’t inherently bad, despite often hosting criminal content.
But it’s also extremely difficult to stop people from accessing the dark web – or even track who is using the dark web.
So outright banning the dark web may not be ethical or enforceable.
What is the government doing about the dark web?
On April 11, Home Secretary Amber Rudd launched a multi-million pound cyber blitz on criminals selling guns on the dark web.
She announced a £9million fund to ensure every police force in the UK has a dedicated cyber crime unit to bust its “sickening shopping list of services and products”.
The extra cash will tackle offenders who are exploiting the anonymity of the dark web – where users use freely available software to avoid being tracked – to trade in guns, drugs and child abuse images.
This anonymity has attracted criminals seeking to avoid detection by law enforcement agencies.
How does the dark web work?
The best explanation so far has been published by Daniel Prince, Associate Director Security at Lancaster University, on The Conversation.
Mr Prince says: “So just for a minute imagine that the whole internet is a forest – a vast expanse of luscious green as far as the eye can see. And in the forest are well-worn paths – to get from A to B.
“Think of these paths as popular search engines – like Google – allowing you as the user the option to essentially see the wood from the trees and be connected. But away from these paths – and away from Google – the trees of the forest mask your vision.
“Off the paths it is almost impossible to find anything – unless you know what you’re looking for – so it feels a bit like a treasure hunt. Because really the only way to find anything in this vast forest is to be told where to look.
“This is how the dark web works – and it is essentially the name given to all the hidden places on the internet.
“Just like the forest, the dark web hides things well – it hides actions and it hides identities. The dark web also prevents people from knowing who you are, what you are doing and where you are doing it.”
Who uses the dark web and why?
The dark web is used by all sorts of people for all sorts of reasons – but it’s not surprising that it’s used for illegal activity.
A study by the University of Portsmouth in 2014 found that the most wanted type of content on Tor was child porn, followed by black markets for goods such as drugs, personal details and even guns.
This type of site is regularly busted by police, who compromise them by distributing viruses and malware to users.
The dark web is also used for hiding online activity related to finance, extremism, arms, hacking, abuse and fraud.
However, for others the dark web has positive uses. For example, it can be used to avoid a national firewall, such as China, where users are normally blocked from accessing hidden sites.
It can also be used as a tool for whistleblowing – infamous website WikiLeaks is hosted on the dark web, allowing whistleblowers to anonymously upload classified information to the press.
Do police ever catch people using the dark web?
Yes – although using the dark web makes it easier to evade detection but governments around the world are working to index, sort and catalogue the dark web as well as monitor it as much as they can.
The UK government have a dedicated cybercrime unit to tackle the dark web with a focus on taking down serious crime rings and child porn.
Just earlier this year police caught Richard Huckle ‘Britain’s worst-ever paedophile’ by secretly taking over a dark web site dedicated to child abuse.
The online network was made up of over 45,000 people who swapped sickening videos and images of children on a dark-web forum which was only accessible through a specially encrypted browser.
Another take-down, called Operation Onymous, revealed over 400 “hidden services” in an effort by seventeen different countries co-ordinated by Europol and the FBI.
The operation led to hundreds of pounds worth of Bitcoin being seized and 17 arrests – but only one person was identified and taken into custody.
Ross Ulbricht was the man behind Silk Road, the internet’s biggest market for illegal drugs – which was hosted on the dark web.
Silk Road was reportedly worth $34.5m and had nearly one million anonymous customers. On Silk Road you could buy drugs, services (such as hacking into Facebook accounts), pirated content, fake passports and more. You could even check the reviews and star ratings of each dealer left by other customers.
Ulbricht was caught by the FBI in 2013, who shut down Silk Road and convicted him of money laundering, computer hacking, conspiracy to traffic fraudulent identity documents and conspiracy to traffic narcotics in February 2015.
He was sentenced to life in prison. Ulbricht will also be tried for procuring murder.
FBI indictments claimed he ordered hitmen to kill people he thought would expose the identity of his clients.
But investigators believe none of the six hits took place.