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How to safely access the dark web for beginners

What is the dark web?

First things first: what is the dark web? The dark web is a part of the internet that is not accessible without specialized software, such as Tor and Freenet. There are several darknets on the dark web, some public and others private. The best known of these darknets is the Tor network – also known as “Onionland” – which is characterized by its own top-level domain “.onion”. The dark network is what we are going to discuss today.

Why access the Tor network?

There are two major reasons for accessing the Tor network. First and foremost, the anonymization. When you are connected to the Tor network your traffic flows through several nodes. These nodes can only access information about which node the traffic will be sent to next all other information is encrypted until it eventually reaches the exit node, which will send the traffic to its destination. At this point, the origin of the traffic cannot be reconstructed.

The other reason is that websites hosted on the Tor network enjoy the same anonymization. Therefore, hosts that desire complete anonymity, should strongly consider using Tor. There are many different .onion sites serving various users. Examples are political activists and whistle-blowers, but also illicit marketplaces where vendors sell a range of illegal services and products.

How to safely access the Tor network?

For most users connecting to Tor the network will go through the Tor browser bundle. The browser provides everything you need to access the Tor network and can be downloaded directly from the Tor project website.

Simply download the bundle for your operating system and install the program. Once installed, the browser will open just like any other browser. You will briefly see a connection window, but this will disappear once the connection is established. It is important to realize that the traffic to the entry node of Tor is encrypted and cannot be read by your internet service provider (ISP) or virtual private network (VPN). Even though the encryption prevents third parties from watching along, it is possible to verify if a user is browsing on Tor. Using Tor in itself is not illegal in most countries, but remember that it can be used as evidence in criminal cases.

Once everything is up and running, we will have to change some settings. By default, Tor is configured for user-friendliness, which could compromise your security. In the past, law enforcement has used JavaScript exploits on servers they compromised to harvest information on visitors. Moreover, many .onion sites will force you to disable your JavaScript as a precaution. To do so, go to the top right of your browser and click on the shield icon.

Click on Advanced Security Settings and select the “safest” option.

This will provide the safest browsing experience at the cost some functionality and will make a lot of public websites – or ‘clearnet’ websites – unusable. If you are planning on using Tor outside the Onion network, you might have to revert to the standard or safer options. 

Once configured, we are ready to browse the web through the Tor network. Clearnet websites run significantly slower, and many features are outright disabled or will not work due to potential security risks.

Finding your way around

Services such as Google or Duckduckgo will not index .onion domains. However, there are alternative search engines that focus on indexing the Onion net, such as AHMIA (clearnet link) and Not Evil (.onion link). These search engines will index the Onion net and attempt to censor abusive and illegal material. Other search engines have a more anarchistic approach and their business model usually revolves around referral links to illicit marketplaces, such as Torch.

Unlike the clearnet, most traffic comes from The Hidden Wiki and portal sites – such as dark.fail –   that maintain lists of links to various sites in different categories. These wiki sites can be found both on the Onion net and the clearnet.



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