Forget the media hype, here’s the truth about the Dark Web

Over the course of my career, I have been fortunate to work in a variety of industries. I’ve worked in health care, insurance, telecom, military, and aerospace, just to name a few. One of the things that I have noticed is that although most of these vertical industries are vastly different from one another, none of them are immune to the use of buzzwords. It seems that buzzwords are a universal phenomenon, regardless of whether you are working for a hospital or for the Pentagon. Even so, the IT industry seems to have taken buzzword use to the next level.

In IT, we have buzzwords for practically everything. Some of those buzzwords even seem to defy logic, but I digress. One of the things that really seems to set IT buzzwords apart from those stemming from other industries, however, is that IT buzzwords seem to have a way of making their way into the vocabularies of non-IT people. Over time, those buzzwords are overused, and misused, to the point where they often become ambiguous.

My personal favorite example, which I have written about on more than one occasion, was a radio commercial that I heard while driving through Canada. In the commercial, a car dealership referred to a vehicle’s hands-free Bluetooth connectivity as cloud technology. You just can’t make this stuff up.

Of course, the IT buzzword that seems to be most heavily used outside of IT at the moment is “Dark Web.” When I am in the car, I constantly hear radio commercials for products such as identity theft protection, credit monitoring, burglar alarms, backup software, and more making references to the so-called Dark Web. And in case you are wondering, yes, I have heard the term misused so badly that it left me scratching my head. A few weeks ago, someone on the radio defined the Dark Web as being the practice of shipping illegal drugs through the U.S. Postal Service.

Where did the phrase Dark Web come from?

Dark Web
So before I delve into a discussion of what the Dark Web really is (and is not), I wanted to take just a moment and talk about the origins of the name. The term “Dark Web” has evolved a lot, and used to have meanings that were totally benign.

The first time that I can remember hearing about the Dark Web was around the year 2001. This was at the peak of the infamous dot-com crash. During the dot-com heyday, some of the computer companies had invested insane amounts of money installing fiber optic cable in various population centers in an effort to improve Internet capacity and performance in those areas. Because of the financial crash, however, much of this fiber optic cable was not put into use until years later. The cable was therefore dark (not lit up with pulses of light), and was occasionally referred to as the Dark Web (although I don’t know how widespread the use of this term really was).

Later on, the term evolved to mean something completely different. Search engines such as Google and Bing are only able to index a small fraction of the resources on the Internet. Internet search engines can’t, for example, index resources that exist behind a paywall, or on a corporate intranet. For a short period of time, resources that could not be indexed by search engines were referred to (at least by some) as the Dark Web. Today, unindexed portions of the Internet are more commonly called the “Deep Web.”

The truth about the Dark Web

Dark Web
To illustrate the concept of the Dark Web, imagine for a moment that the Internet is a large city. Like any other large city, the Internet contains ample places to go shopping, as well as travel agencies, places to get health advice, entertainment venues, and social hangouts. In many ways, the Internet could almost be thought of as a parallel universe that acts as an analog to the physical world.

Of course, most large cities also have their seedy side, and the Internet is no different. Over the years, I have read more than one article claiming that the No. 1 reason why the Internet caught on so quickly was because it offers such a wide variety of adult entertainment options. If we are sticking with the city analogy, then all of the porn sites can be collectively thought of as the Internet’s red light district.

Just like any large city, the Internet also has a criminal underground. This is the so-called Dark Web (although not everything on it is criminal).

In the physical world, the criminal underground can be a little bit difficult to access. You wouldn’t expect the yellow pages (does anyone even use phone books anymore?) to provide listings for contract killers, drug dealers, or chop shops. I’m not so naive as to believe that such things aren’t in the phone book, but they aren’t going to be listed by their true purpose. Openly advertising criminal activity in the phone book would make the cop’s jobs way too easy, and no criminal wants that.

I’ve obviously never tried to put a hit on someone or tried to score a brick of cocaine, but I’m guessing that if you wanted to engage in these types of behavior, you would probably have to know a supplier, or at least have a friend who knows a supplier. The illegal nature of such activities makes it necessary for such businesses to operate in the shadows.

The same basic concept holds true for the Dark Web. The anonymous nature of the Internet makes it ideal for hiding criminal activity. Even so, no good criminal is going to advertise their services on Google. If you were to do a Google search on how to commit a particular crime (you shouldn’t actually do that), most of the search results will probably be bait sites put into place by law enforcement.

The point is that the criminal underground uses the Internet just like anyone else, but criminals can’t just put up public facing websites that are accessible through Google. This is where the Dark Web comes into play.

Unlike what pop culture might lead you to believe, the Dark Web is not a separate computer network that is disconnected from the Internet. Instead, it exists on the same Internet that you use every day, but is obscured from view through the use of encryption and proprietary protocols. Accessing the Dark Web requires the use of purpose built tools such as a browser called TOR (The Onion Router).

What is on the Dark Web?

Advertisers and pop culture portray the Dark Web as something of a brokerage for contraband. The Dark Web is described as a place to go if you want to buy guns, drugs, counterfeit money, malware kits, passports, or stolen credit card numbers. While you can get these items and many others on the Dark Web, the Dark Web is far more than just a place to go if you need to purchase something illegal.

Not every website on the Dark Web is blatantly criminal. Some of the websites that exist on the Dark Web are counterculture sites that are just a bit too “out there” for the surface Web that we all use every day. I’m talking about things like Hitler fan fiction sites, sites dedicated to plotting fantasy assassinations of public figures (OK, maybe that one is illegal), or sites dedicated to crazy conspiracy theories. I’m not talking about the run-of-the-mill conspiracy theories like the ones about the moon landing being fake, or the government plotting 9/11. I’m talking about really off the deep end conspiracies, such as the one about Elvis being abducted by aliens, and then being returned to Earth and working at a fast food drive-through for the purpose of poisoning customers with alien DNA.

Although stumbling onto sites selling contraband or reading lunatic conspiracy theories might sound fun, the Dark Web also contains picture and video sites dedicated to some of the very worst things that you can imagine.

I have thankfully never seen any of this myself, but according to multiple reliable sources, the Dark Web contains videos of children and animals being tortured and murdered for entertainment, snuff films, cannibalism, and kiddie porn. There are also sites selling enslaved humans, and there are even sex doll manufacturers that create dolls that look like children.

Darker than you can imagine

The media has a bad habit of hyping things to make them seem way worse than they really are. In the case of the Dark Web, however, the opposite is actually true. The Dark Web is a much more dangerous and frankly horrifying place than most people probably realize. If you are curious to learn more about what’s really on the Dark Web without putting yourself at risk for legal trouble, malware infections, or worse, then I recommend checking out some of the videos on YouTube. One thing to keep in mind, however, is that while some YouTube videos will actually show you what is on the Dark Web, many (but not all) of the Dark Web horror story videos are fictional.

Photo credit: Pexels

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