The Good People’s Guide to the Dark Web (How to Stay Safe in 4 Easy Steps)

Last Updated by Julia Olech on April 07, 2020

You may think Google gives you access to all of the content available online, but you couldn’t be more wrong. With the use of everyday search engines, we can only reach the surface of what’s really online. To browse through the deepest layers of the digital world, you need to connect to the Dark Web.

Contrary to popular belief, surfing through the Dark Web (or Darknet) is not only legal, but also a great way to stay anonymous online. It provides access to many resources not readily available to the general public, like discounted electronics, various forums, and secret social media platforms.

But it’s crucial to remember that the Dark Web comes with many dangers for those who don’t know how to use it. With my guide, you can access the depth of the Darknet quickly and easily without putting yourself at risk.

What Is the Dark Web?

The internet consists of 3 separate layers: the Surface Web (or the Clear Web), the Deep Web, and the Dark Web, otherwise known as the Darknet.

The Surface Web includes all of the widely available websites you access every day. They can be accessed easily through search engines or direct URLs.

The Deep Web is a lot bigger than the Clear Web and refers to websites that aren’t publicly available. It hosts sites only available with a valid form of authentication, as they aren’t indexed by any search engines. This means that every time you log in to a private account like your university library or online banking, you access the Deep Web.

The Dark Web is a part of the Deep Web, but it’s not as accessible. You won’t be able to browse it just by logging in since these websites use hidden IP addresses hosted on encrypted networks. That’s why any online activity on the Dark Web is fully anonymous and untraceable. To access any Darknet site, you need an ultra-secure browser.

The most common Deep Web browser is The Onion Router (Tor). The idea behind the browser was originally developed by the US Naval Search Laboratory in mid-1990s, but Tor itself wasn’t released to the public until 2002.

The browser resembles the more popular search engines like Google or Firefox. However, when you use Tor, instead of transferring your data directly between servers, the browser routes it through a network of encrypted connections. Though this often slows down your internet traffic, it’s more secure than a standard search engine.

All websites on the Dark Web come with randomly created URLs that change frequently. The most recognizable feature of Tor links is their suffix — instead of the well-known .com or .net, all Darknet websites end in .onion. They are deliberately difficult to remember to keep all the content on the Dark Web confidential and anonymous.

Is the Dark Web Illegal?

While it is legal to access the Dark Web, it’s widely known that people use it for various illegal purposes like hacking, selling and buying drugs, and child pornography. Governments and special services all over the world work extremely hard to locate and punish anyone involved in such activities, but it often takes months or years to catch cybercriminals. Some of the most popular crime stories from the Dark Web include:

1. Silk Road — the Dark Web’s First Illegal Marketplace

Started in 2011 by Ross Ulbricht (also known as Dread Pirate Roberts or DPR), Silk Road is known as the first digital black market platform popular for selling illegal goods and services including guns, forged paperwork, and drugs. The website enabled users to make purchases using Bitcoin to protect their online identities.

However, to set up and manage Silk Road, Ulbricht used his real name and personal email address. This mistake led the FBI to successfully catch him in 2013, seizing a staggering $48 million DPR earned in commissions. The site was shut down immediately and its founder is now serving a life sentence in a New York prison.

Since the site’s downfall, multiple copycat websites have tried to take its place. However, so far not one has been able to gain such popularity and revenue as Ulbricht’s initial platform.

2. Hieu Minh Ngo — Owner of a Dark Web Identity Theft Service

Hieu Minh Ngo is a Vietnamese hacker known as one of the biggest online identity thieves. Operating from his home, he stole personal data, such as bank account details, names, and Social Security numbers of over 200 million US citizens by hacking into American computer systems.

He then advertised and sold the obtained information on two of his websites on the Dark Web. With many cybercriminals as customers, Minh Ngo earned as much as $2 million dollars through his online transactions.

In 2013, he was detained by the Secret Service and sentenced to 13 years in a US federal prison.

3. Shannon Grant McCoole — the ‘CEO’ of a Global Child Pornography Website

Shannon Grant McCoole was an Australian care worker at the Department for Child Protection in Australia when he launched his own child pornography website. McCoole used the platform to upload videos documenting his explicit interactions with children as young as 18 months old. The website grew to almost 1,000 regular users eager to watch McCoole’s evil behavior.

Luckily, in 2014, the police discovered over 100,000 images and 600 videos of child sexual exploitation on McCoole’s personal computer. After pleading guilty to abusing several children in his care, McCoole was sentenced to 35 years in prison.

4. Ashley Madison — the Dark Web’s Dating Scandal

Ashley Madison is a popular dating site for extramarital affairs. Although the platform is available on the Clear Web, it became vulnerable to a Dark Web hacker attack in 2015. The so called Impact Team successfully stole over 60GB of user data and threatened to publish it on the Dark Web if Ashley Madison wasn’t shut down within a month.

When the site ignored the hackers’ demands, personal information including emails and home addresses were published on the Dark Web, exposing the identities of millions of married people having affairs. Unlike the other cases on this list, the identities of the hackers are unknown to this day.

Though extremely unsettling, these are only a few out of hundreds of illegal activities taking place on the Dark Web every day. However, when you know how to navigate through it, you can engage in many useful and legal digital practices.

What Can You Use the Dark Web For?

Despite the Dark Web’s bad reputation, it provides a way for many people to bypass local digital restrictions and access content unavailable in certain countries. Users also view the Dark Web as a platform to exercise their right to freedom of speech and privacy. Though not exhaustive, these are the most popular positive uses of the Dark Web:

1. Stay Anonymous Online

Just like the Surface Web, the Darknet is filled with many similar websites including various social media platforms, gaming websites, and ultra-secure email services. However, all of your online activity is kept fully anonymous and can’t be seized by hackers and government authorities. This layer of anonymity also allows you to bypass censorship and access websites otherwise restricted in many Middle Eastern and Asian countries.

Warning! Avoid logging in to any of your personal accounts (like online banking or email) on the Dark Web, as your anonymity may be compromised. Once logged in, all of your online activity will be linked to that profile, whether you use Tor or not. If you have to create an account on any Dark Web site, use a random or disposable email address that can’t be traced back to your personal information.

2. Expose Corruption

If you are a journalist, whistleblower, or activist, you can use the Dark Web to expose and report illegal activities without putting yourself at risk. In fact, multiple online magazines and news channels like CNN, FOX, and NBC have open sites on the Dark Web to receive anonymous tips from online users.

Journalists and whistleblowers regularly turn to the Darknet to share controversial information about government representatives, celebrities, or money scandals, like tax evasion. This practice ensures that any activists fighting for justice and freedom in the world can avoid prosecution and censorship that’s common in many countries.

3. Share Personal Stories

Due to the anonymity it provides, many people use the Dark Web to share their personal stories. This ranges from forums with advice on a variety of topics to online support websites where people share traumatic experiences like physical or sexual abuse. It’s a great way to connect with other victims and seek help without revealing your identity.

4. Buy Things Anonymously

The Darknet marketplace can be used for purchasing goods without raising suspicion. While I don’t condone purchasing any illegal items, there are many legitimate reasons for buying products and services on the Dark Web. This includes buying specific security software, discounted electronic devices, or medication that’s not readily available in certain countries, like sleeping pills, painkillers, and antidepressants.

Important! Always be careful when buying through the Dark Web. Due to the lack of regulations alongside the fact that many illegal and stolen items are sold daily on the digital market, you can never be too sure of what you’re getting. Before making any transactions, check buyer reviews, seller ratings, and remember to only use cryptocurrencies as a payment method.

5. Get Medical Advice

If you have a health issue but don’t feel comfortable contacting your regular doctor for help, there are some doctors who offer advice to patients on the Dark Web. They can usually be found on various medical forums as well as their own websites. This is a great way to get help for those who want to keep their conditions anonymous.

The most popular “Drug Counselor,” who goes by the nickname DoctorX, has been helping people from all over the world through his site. Just in a few months of starting his digital practice, he had over 50,000 online visits and answered hundreds of questions regarding drug addiction, self-harm, and more.

6. Join Online Communities

As the Dark Web grows in popularity, it’s easy to find other like-minded people who you can share and discuss ideas with. Just by browsing Tor, you can find similar sites and online communities that you’d find on the Clear Web, including clubs and social networks.

No matter what your interests are, there is a high chance you can find a forum on that topic on the Darknet. Despite this online freedom, always avoid engaging in any forums involving illegal activities such as sharing copyrighted material, as you may be prosecuted by the authorities.

Dangers of the Dark Web

The Dark Web offers many amazing benefits to those who use it for legitimate purposes. Unfortunately, it’s also a place where many cybercriminals abuse the privilege of anonymity and avoid getting caught. While you can easily avoid any criminal activity, it’s important to be aware of the dangers of accessing the Darknet. Here are some dangers that you should actively avoid:

Malware

While the Dark Web is a place for hacktivists to meet and also stop many digital attacks, it’s also a platform for those hackers who are eager to exploit vulnerable users. They create fraudulent sites on the Dark Web containing malware that can infect your computer. These malicious programs can record keystrokes, steal documents and financial data, record audio and video from your computer, or even hijack your personal device for blackmail.

As it’s often very difficult to tell whether sites on the Dark Web are real, it’s easy to download malware without even knowing. To stay safe, it’s best to use the Darknet with a specific aim in mind and do research beforehand to attain a list of trustworthy links.

Criminal Activity

Apart from hackers, the Dark Web is often used by many criminals to sell stolen goods, weapons, drugs, and fake documents (i.e. passports). Criminals have also been known to use the Dark Web to hire hackers and assassins. Some sites have disturbing and illegal content like child pornography or even live streamed murders.

The list of criminal activities taking place on the Dark Web grows every day and it can be difficult to filter through the unknown platform. I strongly advise against browsing through randomly found sites — that way you will avoid accessing any highly unsettling content.

Surveillance

Law enforcement agencies and governments monitor the Dark Web to catch criminals. As it’s incredibly difficult to identify users on the Darknet, the governments usually set up fake illegal websites to catch cybercriminals. In some countries, you could attract the attention of the authorities simply by using a browser like Tor.

Law enforcement regularly takes down illegal sites on the Dark Web and reveals the identities of the sites’ visitors. However, as long as you remember to abide by the lawful uses of the Darknet, you won’t have to worry about alerting the authorities.

Read This Before Accessing the Dark Web

It’s crucial to remember that you won’t be fully protected if you use Tor without additional safety measures. While onion routing makes it more difficult to trace your data back to you, it’s still possible to identify you through the Dark Web browser due to possible malfunctions within the system.

For example, in 2014, users involved in illegal activity on the Dark Web were caught by the FBI because of a security issue with JavaScript. On top of that, in 2017, the Darknet’s system failure resulted in multiple websites crashing and exposing IP addresses of many of its users. Though Tor developers fix the arising issues quickly, they can’t always keep up with them.

Using a VPN is the best measure to stay anonymous online. With a VPN, your data is encrypted before it reaches your ISP. That way, your internet provider won’t know you’re browsing on Tor, keeping your identity on the Dark Web fully anonymous.

A VPN connection also provides an additional layer of security as it hides your IP address by relocating your virtual location before your data even reaches the Tor network. Many quality providers offer various protection features like military-grade data encryption and DNS leak protection to make sure your online identity is fully protected as well as a kill switch option should your internet connection drop suddenly.

While you may be tempted to use a free VPN, although they might work on the Surface Web, there is a big risk they won’t keep you safe on the Dark Web. This is due to the fact that free providers often compromise on the quality of their features to offer services free of charge. It results in multiple limitations like capped monthly data usage or slower download speeds. But most importantly, free VPNs are known for storing and selling your personal data (including your actual location) to third parties.

For carrying out any activities on the Darknet, I highly recommend using a trustworthy premium VPN provider like ExpressVPN, NordVPN, or CyberGhost. That way you won’t have to worry about any negative or dangerous repercussions when you access the Dark Web.

4 Steps to Access the Dark Web Safely

Staying safe on the Dark Web is simple if you follow these 4 steps. For full protection, make sure you don’t skip any of these steps, as this could result in lowering your safety levels.

Quick Guide: 4 Steps to Access the Dark Web Safely

  1. Download and connect to a VPN. Connecting to a VPN server will mask your IP address and keep you safe on the Dark Web.
  2. Download and install Tor. Use the official Tor website to avoid fraudulent Tor-like products that could compromise your digital security.
  3. Connect to or configure Tor. By default, the main add-ons and security settings are on, but you may need to configure certain options if you live in a country where Tor is censored.
  4. Safely browse the Dark Web with Tor. To find specific websites on the Dark Web, you can use one of Tor’s search engines, DuckDuckGo or Candle.

Step 1: Download and Connect to a VPN

First, you need to choose a quality VPN provider that doesn’t keep logs of your data and is compatible with the Tor browser. For this article, I used ExpressVPN as an example, but it’s not the only provider that can keep you safe on the Dark Web.

How to connect to a VPN:

  1. On your provider’s website, create an account using your email address. Then, choose a subscription plan.
    Screenshot of ExpressVPN subscription plans.
  2. Select your preferred payment method and make a payment.
    Screenshot of ExpressVPN payment methods.
  3. After you’ve purchased your subscription, download and install the VPN app compatible with your operating system.
    Screenshot of all operating systems compatible with ExpressVPN
  4. When the installation is complete, open the VPN and log in to your account. On ExpressVPN, you’ll have to enter the activation code you receive in your email.
    Screenshot of ExpressVPN desktop app log in
  5. Select a country you want to connect to from the provider’s location list, or use the provider’s recommended server location.
    Screenshot of ExpressVPN's list of server locations.
  6. Connect your device to the chosen server location.
    Screenshot of ExpressVPN's app interface

Step 2: Download and Install Tor

Download Tor from its website at torproject.org. Only use the browser’s official website to avoid fraudulent Tor-like browsers that compromise your online security. The browser is free to download and works on multiple operating systems.

Screenshot of Tor's official website.
Download Tor from its official website by clicking on “Download Tor Browser”

After saving Tor on your computer, you can install it. The instructions vary depending on your operating system.

Install Tor on Windows:

  1. Open the Tor Installation Guide by clicking on the downloaded file.
  2. Select your desired language.
    Screenshot of Tor Installation Guide's language option
  3. Choose a location to install Tor. If you want, you can install it on a USB drive so data isn’t saved to your computer. When you’re ready click “Install.”
    Screenshot of Tor's Installation Guide
  4. When the installation is complete, click “Finish.”
    Screenshot of a completed Tor setup
  5. You can now launch Tor using the main menu or the shortcut on your desktop.
    Screenshot of a Tor icon on the desktop

Install Tor on Mac:

  1. Double-click the Mac icon to automatically begin the Tor download.
    Double-click the Mac icon to begin the download.
  2. You’ll see a screen with a Tor icon and the Applications folder. Drag the icon into the Applications folder to install Tor.
    Drag the Tor icon into the Applications folder.
  3. You can now launch Tor using the Launchpad or the shortcut on your toolbar. Before you can use Tor, you’ll be prompted to either click Connect or Configure your connection depending on your location.
    Either click Connect or Configure.
  4. You can now start browsing anonymously using the Tor Browser.
    Use the Tor Browser search bar to browse anonymously.

Install Tor on Linux:

  1. Right-click on the file and choose “Extract here.” A new folder will be created with the extracted contents.
    Screenshot of a downloaded Tor file on Linux
  2. Open the new folder. There will be another folder inside called “Browser” — open that one too.
    Screenshot of the extracted Tor browser file
  3. Double-click the Tor icon to launch the browser. You might have to confirm that you trust the downloaded application in order to open it.
    Screenshot of Tor browser icon in the Tor file

Step 3: Connect or Configure Tor

When you launch Tor for the first time, you have the option to configure a few settings. If your connection is censored (i.e. you’re using a work computer or Tor is blocked in your country), choose “Configure.” Otherwise, you can click “Connect” to go directly to Tor’s home page.

Screenshot of options to connect to the Tor home page or configure additional settings
Tor allows you to configure certain settings before connecting to the browser

Next, I recommend enabling all of the add-ons to maximize security. By default, the main add-ons, HTTPS Everywhere and NoScript, are already enabled. If you want to select which add-ons to enable or disable, go to the menu button in the top right-hand corner and select “Add-ons.” HTTPS Everywhere ensures that you use the HTTPS version of sites. NoScript disables JavaScript on untrusted sites.

Screenshot of Tor's add-ons settings
Before connecting to Tor, you can enable or disable add-ons in Tor settings

Finally, check your security settings by clicking the shield icon on your browser toolbar. There are three levels: Standard, Safer, and Safest. Standard is the default setting and provides secure browsing. While Safer and Safest disable scripts and other content to increase security, this stops many websites from working properly.

Screenshot of Tor's security level options
You can choose a desired level of security in Tor settings

Step 4: Safely Browse the Dark Web with Tor

Now, you’re free to start browsing anonymously. You can use Dark Web search engines like DuckDuckGo (http://bznjtqphs2lp4xdd.onion/) and Candle (http://gjobqjj7wyczbqie.onion/) to find the sites you’re looking for. If you already know what websites you want to access, simply insert the link in Tor’s webpage bar.

Important! Don’t change the Tor browser screen at any point when you’re using it. Even if you manually resize the browser window, you’re still leaving your digital footprint, which can be used by the authorities or hackers to gather your personal information.

Additional Steps to Increase Your Online Safety

Using a VPN with Tor will keep you safe on the Dark Web, but it’s wise to take extra precautions. Hackers know just how vulnerable you can become and will seize any opportunity to break into your personal files. By taking these extra precautions, you can stay safe while enjoying the benefits of the Dark Web.

  • Make sure to cover your webcam and close all apps on your device (e.g. Netflix, banking apps).
  • Should you wish to make any online purchases, always use cryptocurrency like Bitcoin.
  • Disable JavaScript and avoid downloading torrent files and new plugins to protect your IP address.
  • Before you open any files downloaded from the Darknet, disconnect your device from the Internet to avoid dangerous online exposure.
  • Use the TAILS operating system which runs from a removable drive and won’t leave traces of your online computer activity.

Use the Dark Web at Your Own Risk

The Dark Web provides its users with digital freedom and unlimited resources. Despite the Darknet’s negative reputation, there are plenty of positive ways to browse through it without putting yourself at risk. Though it’s not illegal to access the Dark Web, it’s important to follow precautions to use it safely.

Always be mindful of illegal activities happening on the Dark Web and avoid anything that looks suspicious. Remember that you’re browsing the Darknet at your own risk and it’s your responsibility to abide by the law.

Use the Dark Web as a safe haven and a passport to online accessibility. You have the right to freedom and this secret part of the web is the perfect place to exercise it.

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Julia Olech
I am a writer, blogger, and technology geek. I love discovering new gadgets that make life easier and more fun. Passionate about online privacy and safety as well as browsing the Internet without limitations.