The internet contains at least 4.5 billion websites that have been indexed by search engines, according to one Dutch researcher. That huge number barely scratches the surface of what’s really out there, however. The rest is known as the deep web, which is 400 to 500 times larger than the surface internet, according to some estimates.
What Makes the Deep Web … Deep?
It’s not deep like sad, non-rhyming poetry, nor is it deep like the unexplored depths of the ocean. The deep web is actually so accessible that you use it every time you check your email. What sets it apart is that its sites can’t be reached via search engine; the “let me Google that for you” meme, delightful as it is, doesn’t apply. You need to know the URL or have access permissions to view a deep-web site.
The deep web is about as mundane as the surface web, really — it’s just wrapped in a thin layer of secrecy. Mostly, it’s emails, social media profiles, subscription sites like Netflix, and anything you need to fill out a form to access. But because the deep web is hidden from search engines, some people use it for more nefarious purposes.
Welcome to the Dark Web
The dark web and the deep web aren’t synonymous. The dark web is a sliver of the deep web made up of encrypted sites. Here, near-total anonymity reigns. Encrypted sites lack the DNS and IP addresses that usually make websites identifiable. More confusing still: To access them, users have to use encrypting software that masks their IP addresses, making the users hard to identify, too.
Unsurprisingly, many dark-web sites specialize in illegal goods and services. The now-defunct Silk Road, for instance, was an online drug store — and not in the CVS sense. When its creator, Ross Ulbricht, was arrested in 2013, Silk Road had 12,000 listings for everything from weed to heroin. (Ulbricht was sentenced to life in prison.) The dark web also provides shady resources for hitmen, terrorists, and other criminals; overall, its illicit marketplaces generate more than $500,000 per day. Just accessing the dark web can set off red flags at the FBI.
This is ironic, since Tor, the most popular software for making and accessing dark web sites, was originally created by the U.S. Navy. Even today, Tor is funded by the U.S. government. Washington isn’t secretly supporting the online heroin trade, though — there are actually plenty of other, less shady uses for Tor’s encrypting services. When activists speak out against authoritarian regimes, for instance, Tor can help them protect their privacy; the same goes for whistleblowers, and Average Joes spooked by Facebook’s forthcoming eye-tracking feature. Never forget: Tor can also get you into … dark web bookclubs? If you’re into that.