The dark web is an infamous digital hive of scum and villainy, where people around the world visit their black markets and conduct encrypted business away from any watching eyes. Naturally, that makes a lot of people curious.
However, there are other, more innocent reasons to use the dark web. Reporters, for example, may use it as a way to communicate with whistleblowers who want to protect their identities. Internet users under oppressive regimes may access the dark web to communicate freely with the outside world. White hat coders may want to search for and study various bits of malware to prepare defenses.
Warning: It is crucial that you exercise extreme caution when exploring the dark web. The dangers of the dark web aren’t limited to getting arrested by law enforcement for purchasing stolen goods. Even if you aren’t engaging in illegal activities, there are other things to be concerned about, such as becoming a victim of identity theft or extortion. Browsing the dark web can leave you especially vulnerable to such attacks by hackers and other criminals. There’s also a chance that you could stumble across illegal pornography or gore imagery.
Check out the steps below to learn more about the dark web — and to keep yourself safe.
Step 1: Start with encryption — download Tor and the Tor browser
Tor is the encryption program people use to navigate the dark web. While this encryption can work with several different dark browsers, the most common option is the Tor browser, because it’s free and easy to use.
These days, however, it’s common practice to add Tails, which is an additional security measure to protect your IP address. We suggest you start by downloading a safe version of Tails. The Tails download should include Tor and the Tor browser as one complete package, so you’ll have everything you need to get started. However, note that Tails requires an attached, empty USB storage drive to work, so you may have to buy an extra flash drive.
You may also want to download and enable a virtual private network (VPN) for additional security when using Tor and Tails. When getting ready for the dark web, you can never have too much security.
Step 2: Prepare your computer
You don’t want anything on your computer that a hacker could take advantage of, which is pretty much everything. Take a minute to clear things up: Shut down all apps and ongoing functions.
Close any files you may be working on. Disconnect or cover up your webcam, and do the same with any mic settings your computer has — yes, these can be used against you. It’s okay to get a little paranoid at this juncture.
Step 3: Open the browser with a clear destination in mind
Without browsers like Google carefully organizing search results, the dark web is somewhat disarrayed, which can make it difficult to find what you are looking for. We strongly suggest that you do a lot of research and know exactly where you are going before you start.
To help with this, there are wikis that collect various dark web sites or directories that are (relatively) popular stops and good places to begin. Popular options include the Onion Directory and the Hidden Wiki. Take a look at the sites that these directories have collected and see what topics interest you. Note that categories include absolutely everything, though, so please stay away from the naughty stuff, like hiring hitmen or buying stolen goods.
We also suggest that you do a search for the sites that you intend to visit to see what people are saying about their security and how safe they are. Just because a site is on these directories doesn’t mean it won’t harm you or your computer. Never visit one of these sites directly on a normal browser — draw the line at research.
Step 4: Understand how transactions work before you do anything
There are no rules in a black market, but there are some agreed-upon methods of exchange so that people can trade. On the dark web, that means using cryptocurrency like Bitcoin.
We aren’t suggesting you try to buy anything — that’s another big can of worms — but if you do look into a transaction, understand that you’ll need a cryptocurrency to do it safely, and even then, “safely” is a tricky prospect.
Generally, people who purchase anything on the dark web first move Bitcoins (or their cryptocurrency of choice) from the Bitcoin exchange into a heavily secured wallet. Then, they move the coins from the wallet into the dark web. Even then, it’s advisable to use a separate wallet solely for dark web activity, and only move the coins you intend to spend into the wallet. Use a separate name and password for the wallet that you will never use anywhere else. Many people have had their exchanges and wallets hacked by being careless.
Step 5: Always remember that safety comes first
The FBI can absolutely track people on the dark web, and it keeps the extent of those capabilities a carefully guarded secret, which means you could still get prosecuted for breaking the law even when encrypted. Silk Road wasn’t brought down by amateurs.
However, a more immediate danger for beginners is the great number of traps and hackers on the dark web trying to steal personal information and follow any trace back to your computer to learn more about you. Identity theft and blackmail are rampant. So stay alert, don’t wander around too much, and don’t trust any site or contact that you find.
Step 6: Close everything when you are done
When you are finished, close the Tor browser and shut down/restart your computer entirely. Pay close attention when starting up again, and if everything appears to be acting normally, you can enable the mic settings, webcam, and other functions.