What is the dark web (and how can I stay safe on it)?

The dark web provides you with a level of anonymity and privacy that the ‘surface web’ we browse every day simply can’t compete with. However, using it is also dangerous. While there are many legitimate reasons to use the dark web, its hidden and unregulated nature means that it can be a haven for harmful and illegal content.

If you’re intending to browse the dark web, you need to be well-prepared for the online dangers that come with it. Read on to learn what the dark web is, why it plays a necessary role in our online landscape, and how to stay safe if you decide to use it, including the privacy and malware protection provided by a VPN.


What is the dark web?

We strongly advise our readers to be sensible, and avoid illegal activities on the dark web and beyond at all times. But what really is the dark web? Why does it have such a sketchy reputation, and how can you stay safe when using it?

There is a lot more to the web than you can see at first glance. A significant portion of dark web activity is lawful and useful information that has good reason to be hidden. As with any such technology though, this privacy can also be used with malicious intent, whether that’s to harbour illegal activities or content, or to spread malware.

The first distinction to make is between the deep web and the dark web. The deep web is any site or resource which doesn’t appear in search engines. This is easy to do if you choose to: you can simply tell Google and other search engines not to ‘crawl’ your website and add it to their database. But most sites allow these crawls, because they actively encourage visitors.

Sites on the deep web can only be accessed with permission, or by knowing where to look. While it may sound mysterious, in reality most of the deep web consists of databases and other gated content that is blocked from website visitors – such as file downloads and user directories. Many resources that support the operation of public websites – but are not intended to be accessed by the public – could be considered part of the deep web.

Within the deep web also lies the dark web. The dark web is also not indexed by search engines, but it is different in that it can only be accessed using specialised and highly secure browsers, such as Tor. These browsers disguise and anonymise web traffic using a global network of servers, similar to how VPNs operate.

Due to this reason, websites on the dark web usually contain content that the creators want to hide from law enforcement. The dark web is used for the sale of illegal drugs, firearms, and exposed credit card details. It is also used to share information on the latest hacks and security vulnerabilities.

Not all content on the dark web is illegal or immoral, however. The dark web is also used by whistleblowers and by people living under authoritarian regimes to break through firewalls, and protect their identities while sharing sensitive information.

Due to the lack of oversight, though, scams and malware are prevalent on the dark web. We would advise you to avoid visiting the dark web unless absolutely necessary.


How to stay safe on the dark web

We would generally advise against browsing the dark web, as even if you have good intentions, it’s easy to stray off the beaten path, and suddenly encounter illegal materials, sites or malware. If you do choose to visit the dark web, though, there are a few precautions you should take to stay safe:

  • Always use an anonymous browser like Tor, and keep your security settings at the maximum value, even if this limits your browsing experience. Doing so will protect you from malicious scripts and payloads that can leave your device vulnerable to attacks.
  • Never download or buy anything on the dark web. Like the regular web, the dark web can contain malware – but unlike the regular web, there are no sites that are guaranteed to be safe. Avoid downloading anything, and definitely don’t download anything you’re not 100% certain is legitimate. Some dark web shops may be legitimate, but making a purchase is not worth the risk.
  • System and software updates are designed to keep you safe, so install them! Using the dark web can expose you to malware that will take advantage of any lapse in your updates, and exploit weaknesses that have been patched out of your operating system or other software.
  • Navigate from directories. Following a known file structure will keep you within the same website, and away from anything you aren’t expecting.
  • Avoid following any links. Threats are commonplace on the dark web, and you could easily stumble on something illegal. It pays to be alert when it comes to clicking links.
  • Use a VPN to protect your connection. A VPN such as Hotspot Shield is designed to inhibit malware, and will help protect your device from threats when browsing. It uses encryption and IP address masking to keep your sessions secure and anonymous, while also providing added malware protection by blocking known infected sites.

While there’s no way to ensure all your information stays protected while browsing the dark web, putting protective measures in place can help. To find out more information and methods to protect yourself online, get in touch with a member of the Sota team today.

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