The Dark Web: what is it and why do people use it?

Please see our latest resource, The Dark Web Explained in collaboration with The Children's Society and Marie Collins Foundation. 

The internet has changed in many ways since it first became publicly accessible in the 1990s, and one of the most controversial developments is the growth of the so-called 'Dark Web.'

Adults may be concerned about young people visiting the 'Dark Web', especially as press reports often link them with dangerous or illegal online activity. However, there are some positive aspects to them – like everything online, problems do not come from the technology itself, but instead are caused by the ways in which people use it.

Being aware of the basic facts about these parts of the internet can help you give realistic and honest support to young people if you are concerned they are using them. 

Here's a short explainer on the 'Dark Web', how it can be accessed and what are the risks.  

The 'Open Web', 'Deep Web' and 'Dark Web': definitions

The 'Open Web'

This is the publicly visible part of the internet that most of us use each day, and is accessed through search engines such as Google or Bing.

The 'Deep Web'

This is the part of the internet which is generally hidden from public view. It can't be access via the usual search engines and is reached in other, less widely-known ways.

The majority of the 'Deep Web' is made up of databases which can be accessed securely over the 'Open Web'. For example, databases associated with hotel bookings, online purchases, medical records, banking and others. The content can only be read by authorised people (such as employees) and is protected using passwords.

The 'Dark Web'

When most people go online, they do so via a computer or device that has an IP (Internet Protocol) address - a unique online identity. 

An IP address enables networks to send the right information to the right place - for example, making sure an email reaches its destination. An individual's internet activity can be tracked and monitored using their IP address.

The 'Dark Web' uses complex systems that anonymise a user's true IP address, making it very difficult to work out which websites a device has visited. It is generally accessed using dedicated software, the best known is called Tor (The Onion Router).

Around 2.5 million people use Tor every day. Tor itself is not the 'Dark Web' but instead is a way in which to browse both the Open and Dark Web without anyone being able to identify the user or track their activity. 

How does Tor work?

Tor provides anonymising software which can be accessed via a search engine and then downloaded free of charge. 

Tor wraps the sender’s message in layers of encryption – rather like the layers of an onion, which is how the system got its name.

Searches or messages sent via the Tor browser do not go directly to their intended destination. Instead, they are relayed through “nodes,” which are other computers operated by Tor users.  At each node, a layer of encryption is taken off and the message is then sent on to the next. Each node knows the identity of the previous node and the one that comes next, but does not know the others in the chain.  Therefore it's extremely difficult to track a message’s entire journey or to work out where it started and who sent it. 

Why do people use the 'Dark Web'?

There are three main reasons why people may use the 'Dark Web':

1. Anonymisation

People may have many reasons for protecting their online identity.  In some cases, this is because they would be in danger if their identity became known – for example in countries where the government forbids a free press or where there is political censorship.

Others may use it to reduce their risk of falling victim to crime, such as people who have been cyberstalked or who are concerned about the security of online banking.

Tor is mainly used for people to browse the open web anonymously, a very small percentage of its traffic relates to Hidden Services (below).

2. Accessing ‘Hidden Services’

A Hidden Service (also known as an ‘onion service’) is one where not only the user, but also the website itself, have their anonymity protected by Tor. This means that the IP address of the site cannot be identified, meaning that information about its host, location or content is hidden. Hidden Services are sometimes called “onion addresses” because the website name often ends .onion.

Tor itself is not a Hidden Service, but the sites it hosts are. Hidden Services can be used legitimately, for example for whistleblowing or to allow members of the public to share sensitive information such as knowledge about crimes without the risk of reprisals. However it is generally believed that the majority of Hidden Services contain illicit material. They often require registration (username, password etc) and some have ‘VIP’ sections, accessible only by an invite from the administrators or through an application made by the member and approved by the administrators.

3. Illegal activity.

The Dark Web may be used by people wishing to carry out illegal activities online, such as selling weapons or drugs.  These kinds of operations, and the websites offering them, are often referred to as Hidden Services (above).

Is it legal?

Using Tor or visiting the Dark Web are not unlawful in themselves. It is of course illegal to carry out illegal acts anonymously, such as accessing child abuse images, promoting terrorism, or selling illegal items such as weapons. 

What are the risks?

In many ways, the risks of the 'Dark Web' are the same as those that may be encountered in the 'Open Web'. Young people in both environments may access pornography, indecent images of children, or sites selling drugs and weapons.

Young people are also at risk of exploitation and abuse by sex offenders who use all parts of the internet to target victims. However, there is evidence to show that offenders are more likely to interact with victims on the 'Open Web' than on the 'Dark Web'. The Dark Web is more commonly used by sex offenders to openly discuss ‘tactics’ to exploit young people and share material generated as a result of their offending. It is also harder for law enforcement to investigate online abuse that takes place in the anonymous parts of the internet.

I’ve just discovered that a young person is using Tor. What should I do?

It’s important to keep a sense of perspective. There are many positive reasons for using Tor, and they do not automatically mean that a young person is doing anything dangerous or illegal.

Having open and honest conversations is crucial to helping young people develop safer behaviours online. Explain that there is a lot of illegal content in the Dark Web, and that you do not want them to be exposed to this. Explore their motivations for wanting to use Tor and discuss all options together - if, for example, their motivation is to increase their internet privacy there may be other routes they could take that you both find more agreeable.

Many young people are concerned with political matters such as the freedom of the press. Schools may wish to use discussions of high-profile cases such as Wikileaks to bring this into the open, which allows young people to ask questions and voice their opinions in a safe, supportive environment.

There are also some practical steps that can be taken to give young people some of the security they may feel the Dark Web offers:

  • Encourage young people to use privacy filters on social media, think critically about what they share online, and control who is on their friends and contacts lists. The things we share online, and who we share them with, has an impact on our privacy, as well as aspects such as our internet search history. Use the Thinkuknow website to explore strategies they can use to help them to stay safe online, as well as tips on managing their online lives.
  • Discuss the use of VPNs (Virtual Private Networks). People who are concerned about their privacy and security may use a VPN as they see this as a way of providing an additional layer of security to their online activities. When using a VPN, your information is securely encrypted and your computer will interact with the web as if you're connected elsewhere.
  • Make sure they know where to go if they come across something that worries them or makes them feel uncomfortable in any online environment. Help them to understand how they can report to CEOP if they are concerned about sexual abuse and exploitation online, and encourage them to come to you or another adult they trust if they are concerned about anything online.