Darknet sites. Dark web websites. What are they exactly, where are they hiding and why can’t regular browsers find anything on the real dark web? What does it all have to do with onions? In this blog we’ll explore that part of the internet we hope you never access—and show you how to recognize dark web links so you can avoid clicking on them. Wherever you are online, make sure you have trusted software protection to help keep you safer from the not-so-mythical cyber-monsters and online threats lurking there.
What are dark websites and deep web links?
You probably found this blog because you typed keywords like “links to dark websites” into your search engine. This blog, and the content that can be found by common search engines like Google, is in the top part of the web called the “surface web”. Websites here are usually labeled with registry operators like “.com” and “.org”. Beneath this layer, you’ll find the digital content that’s not indexed by search machines. This includes password-protected websites, and websites that gate their content behind paywalls or online forms. This is the deep web and although it sounds a little scary (especially if you’ve recently seen a documentary on deep-sea organisms), most of us engage with websites on the deep web on a daily basis—from personal emails and subscription services, like streaming sites and online magazines, to intranets for schools, governments, and enterprises. When you log in to check your bank balance online, that’s also the deep web in action. It’s everywhere. In fact, the Encyclopaedia Britannica estimates that the surface web makes up just 0.03% of the internet!
When you think of the deep web, what springs to mind? Phishing and online scams? Drugs and counterfeit money? Anything illegal? That’s actually the dark net. This secretive part of the deep web hosts websites with hidden IP addresses. Due to their unique registry operator and additional security measures like firewalls, these sites can’t be found with traditional search engines like Google. Plus, all content is encrypted and travels via a randomized network of virtual traffic tunnels. That’s why the dark web has become a hive of illicit activity: Owners of illegal websites can hide their location, their users can hide their identities, and data is transferred anonymously. Possibly the most notorious dark web marketplace was called the Silk Road. Don’t head there—it was closed by the FBI in 2013.
Is it illegal to visit dark web websites? Not in itself, and many users have perfectly legitimate reasons for being there. It can be an essential haven for whistle-blowers, political dissidents, investigative journalists, and victims of abuse and persecution. Its legality depends on how the anonymity that it grants is used (or abused). Your actions will make your visits legal or illegal.
To sum up: The deep web is where people go to manage their Netflix subscriptions (for example). Those looking to buy illicit firearms head to the dark web. (We do not condone any illegal activity wherever you are online, of course!).
How do you recognize links to dark web sites?
The iron-clad anonymity on the dark web is achieved by many layers of encryption. Hence the name “The Onion Router” (Tor) for the dark web’s most popular anonymous web browser. That’s why the URL of most dark web sites ends in .onion—these are the sites on the Tor network. E.g.: https://www.nytimes3xbfgragh.onion/. Did you just click on that? You won’t be able to access it if you’re not using Tor. All dark web sites can only be visited with a suitable dark net browser. Find out more about dark web browsers in our blog here.
In addition to usually bearing the name of a popular vegetable, dark web URLs have something else in common: They’re strings of random letters and numbers, so they look more like Wi-Fi codes than the meaningful, easy-to-remember web names you’ll find on the surface web. (You won’t find a dark web site named cheap-illegal-firearms.com for example).
The Hidden Wiki offers a collection of onion websites. It’s on the surface web, so ordinary browsers can find it. Sites on the dark web tend to appear and disappear quickly so the links don’t always work—and they can be unsafe.
Fortunately, unless you have a dark web browser installed, nothing will happen if you click on a link to onion sites. You’ll simply get a “Server not found / The site can’t be reached” message.
Entering the dark web can be dangerous!
Clicking on dark web links if you do have a dark net browser installed is a dangerous pastime and is not recommended! The unregulated depths of the internet are awash with criminals and illegal websites. Every misguided click could open your digital doors to:
- Malware and viruses: These are crawling everywhere across the dark web. Website providers here generally don’t follow the security protocols you’ll usually find on the surface web. The lack of safeguards means that you can more easily be exposed to online threats like keyloggers, ransomware, and botnets. Some dark web portals even sell or provide malware to give cybercriminals the tools to conduct their attacks!
- Identity theft, scams, and fraud: The dark web has a reputation for offering many illegal services, but these could be scams too, and users can be tricked out of large sums of money. These dark waters are also awash with phishing scams, designed to steal your personal information or identity. Cybercriminals can then make purchases in your name or even commit crimes. They could also use your personal details for extortion. If you hang about the dark web, you may even find your own data for sale there! It’s on these illicit marketplaces that stolen data is peddled. Explore how much your data is worth in this blog.
- Illegal activities: Even if you’re not looking for them, it’s easy to stray into illegal areas on the dark web. One minute you’re casually browsing the BBC international news site on the dark web, and the next you’re on a marketplace for illicit drugs.
- Government and police surveillance: This follows on from the above. Let’s get back to that illicit drug site you may have accidentally accessed: Many Tor-based websites are watched by police authorities across the globe. Even if you never make a purchase, even visiting could place you on a police watch list and incriminate you for other activities—or even lead to a jail term! Depending on where you live, just evading government censorship can be a punishable offence.
- Risks to personal security: Do you really want to associate with hackers, drug dealers, and co? What would your mother say? In the dark web, you’ll be in the company of cyber- and real-world criminals. Just being there can attract their attention and could put you at risk of being singled out and targeted for hacking, or worse! Although anonymity is powerful on the dark web, it’s not perfect. Unless you’re a trained expert at leaving no trace, every action you take online will leave digital breadcrumbs that could lead back to you, revealing your identity and location.
Top tip! Wherever you browse, choose multiple layers of security and online privacy conveniently wrapped up into a single solution. Avira Free Security blends trusted anti-malware along with a Software Updater, Password Manager, and more. It helps block spyware, adware, ransomware, and other cyberthreats that could be lurking in infected downloads and malicious websites. Plus, your software is patched against the latest security threats.
How do users protect themselves on the dark web?
Anyone foolhardy or desperate enough to enter the dark web tries to put as many barriers as they can between themselves and potential bad guys or online threats.
Barrier 1: Specialized tools, like a secure browser to access onion sites. The Tor browser is the secure web browser chosen by most users and lets visitors find the unregulated sites that normal browsers like Google Chrome and Firefox can’t display. It also helps anonymize the connection and routes data through three encryption layers. This makes it harder for third parties to snoop on others or to find out the true identity and location of dark web users—but no system is perfect!
Barrier 2: A virtual private network (VPN), in conjunction with a secure browser. You’re at much greater risk of being targeted by criminals when you access unregulated websites on the dark web. A VPN helps protect your privacy by anonymizing your IP address and encrypting your data so it’s a good idea on the ‘normal’ web too. Try Avira Phantom VPN when you next browse, shop, and bank online. It’s free. (Avira does not recommend the dark web!).
Barrier 3: Anonymity at every turn. Some people adopt a new identity with a false name, new email, and a PO Box instead of an address. They also use cryptocurrency to make a purchase rather than a card linked to their bank account. Plus, they enable two-factor authentication for their online accounts to keep them safer from hackers.
Even with these barriers in place, the safety of anyone visiting the dark web can’t be guaranteed and identities can be quickly compromised. Those, like political dissidents, who are forced onto the dark web to protect their identities, find refuge in legal sites like Dread, where they can more safely join threads and discussions like they would on Reddit. There’s even a mirror version of the standard Facebook. Due to the strict online censorship of some countries, the BBC has created an international news site for the dark web.
How can you detect and avoid malicious dark web links?
For surface websites, you can check the domain part of a URL to see the real source. The domain refers to the letters that come after the http:?// (and end before the first / in longer links). Scammers will use a URL that sounds legitimate, by including a well-known brand after the /. E.g.: http://account_login.co.za/google.com. They also use small spelling mistakes to fool you—like a zero masquerading as the letter O. Some dodgy URLs are shown just as an IP address. E.g.: http://184.108.40.206. In this case, you have no way of knowing who the website belongs to! Generally, authentic pages on the surface web won’t include rows of symbols or be made up entirely of numbers. It’s trickier to differentiate the good from the bad with dark web links as all these website URLs look like vast, randomly generated passwords. The best advice is simply never to click on random links, no matter where you find them.
So, you’ve accidentally clicked on a malicious link? Here’s what to do!
So, you think you’ve been fooled, probably by a cunning phishing attack? An emergency usually triggers a fight or flight response. We recommend a combination of both. Firstly: Run! Get out of there fast and shut down your browser immediately. Clicking on the link could have triggered a malware download and disconnecting from the internet can help prevent malware from moving across the network onto other devices.
Then it’s time to fight back. Hopefully you have trusted antivirus software like Avira Free Security. It’s also advisable to change your passwords as hackers may have accessed your credentials and could be making their way into your online bank account as we speak. It’s always better to be safe than sorry. Some online security software, like Avira Password Manager Pro, includes account checks, to inform you if your online account may have been compromised in a security breach.
On a final note, please remember that it’s not called the “dark” web for nothing. It’s filled with shady websites, and users may not see what’s coming. We’ve tried to shine a light on this deep corner of the internet as we believe that knowledge is power and can help keep us safer. But when it comes to the dark web, it’s safest not to go at all.