If the World Wide Web represents the visible part of an ocean, the Dark Web could be regarded as everything below the surface. Far larger in volume and much more dangerous in nature, it’s a fascinating place packed with content Google and Bing would refuse to index, that’s if they could even find it. And as a consequence, staying safe on the Dark Web requires a very different mindset to everyday surfing, where web browsers and antivirus packages are generally on-hand to offer extra protection.
A key difference between the surface and Dark Web involve the latter’s page construction. World Wide Websites are specifically engineered to be publicly visible. The use of keywords, metadata, and indexes helps audiences to find exactly what they want, through the process of search engine optimisation (SEO).
Conversely, dark sites are constructed with no such indicators (or warnings) about their content. They’re not meant to be found, except by those who know the exact web address to enter. They’re only accessible through the privacy-focused Tor browser, in the absence of cookies and browsing histories. And while a surface site might be signalled by a company’s name followed by a country code top-level domain, dark sites are identified by a lengthy string of random alphanumeric characters. This affords no clues about its content, who created it, and so on.
As a result, clicking on a link involves taking a leap into the unknown. Instead of regulated search engines with reputations to preserve, URLs tend to be listed on directory pages where the administrator of the site is wholly responsible for published content. And since those administrators are (a) anonymous, and (b) under no obligation to play nicely, clicking a link could take the unwary user absolutely anywhere.
Safe not sorry
So how can someone intent on exploring the depths ensure they don’t end up stumbling onto web pages which can’t be unseen? While there are no guarantees here, these are our tips for staying safe:
1. Use the surface web to research Dark Web directories.
Dead links are an endemic problem down in the depths, but platforms like the Hidden Wiki contain a relatively high proportion of genuine links. These higher-profile sites would also suffer greater reputational damage if someone followed a link which infected their device with malware, or led them to a mislabelled page with distressing content.
2. Open web pages in new tabs.
The Tor Browser’s security-focused design means pages tend to load very slowly. It might be possible to tell a page contains something unpleasant before it’s even finished displaying. Closing the tab will ensure previous pages are still accessible, rather than having to reload the Tor browser – a process which can take several minutes – and then trying to retrace footsteps which aren’t stored or recorded.
3. Learn the language.
This might seem unpalatable, but knowing that Loli refers to children, for example, will help people to avoid websites potentially containing child pornography. Like some social message platforms, there’s an entirely new lexicon of abbreviations and slang terms to learn below the web’s surface. Without knowing these terms, it would be easy to misinterpret the descriptions beside links to specific URLs.
4. Look for link groups.
Directories often bundle related content together – pro-democracy groups, hacker forums, etc. Even if URLs resemble gobbledygook, it may be possible to discern their purpose by looking at which sites they’re listed alongside. And if in doubt, avoid visiting a particular page altogether…