The Mysterious, Ominous Dark Web: A Primer for the Rest of Us

These past weeks have not been kind to those seeking privacy for conducting illicit activities. The Ashley Madison hack came to a head with 9.7 gigabytes (GB) of private data and company communications being released online for all to see. The fallout is ongoing, and many are left wondering how the data was published. It was released largely thanks to the anonymous nature of the Dark Web. Sounds ominous? It is and isn’t. Allow me to explain.

There are three central layers of the Internet as we know it: the Surface Web, the Deep Web and the Dark Web. An easy way to picture it is to imagine roads. You have a highway (the Surface Web), a private road (the Deep Web) and a dark, disturbing alleyway (the Dark Web).

The Surface Web is what we use on a day-to-day basis. It’s great for general browsing, and it makes finding websites, and using Web services, a cinch. In fact, the Surface Web allows us to use services like Google, which crawls the Internet for the sites you’re looking for, and view blogs like this one.

Then there’s the Deep Web. The Deep Web is much like the Surface Web with one distinction: it isn’t searchable. We use the Deep Web all the time. Internet-based mail services, like Gmail and Yahoo! Mail, use the Deep Web to keep your private communications hidden from everyone’s view. It’s also often employed in government databases, court records and various libraries around the world. The Deep Web is hardly scandalous — it’s just a method used to better organize and protect information.

Finally, we have the Dark Web.

The Dark Web is the dangerous alleyway of the Internet, and only a few people go there — there’s only about 9,000 services hidden across the Dark Web, according to security researcher Nik Cubrilovic. But those who do are often up to no good. Which brings us to the perpetrators of the Ashley Madison data leak.

Impact Team, the cybercriminals behind the breach, didn’t want to be ousted. Not only because a lot of people are upset, but also because if they were found out, they’d most certainly be arrested and tried in court. So, to avoid that fate, they opted to place a portion of the Ashley Madison database on the Dark Web.

The Dark Web is only accessible through specialized tools like Tor, which strip Web traffic of identifiable information, encrypt it and send it through a series of server jumps — which means that traffic will appear to go through a server in one country, then a different server in another, and then another. These jumps are made so that nothing, neither the person searching for a service or the hidden service itself, can be easily identified. Identifying people through Tor is possible, but very, very difficult to do — which is why it’s a favored tool of cybercriminals.

In all likelihood, you’ll never need to visit, use or interface with the Dark Web. It just isn’t something casual users need for Web browsing. It’s far more complicated to use than the regular Surface Web — especially if you want to stay anonymous online.

So now you know: however mysterious, the Dark Web remains a powerful platform for hackers of all kinds—and it won’t be going anywhere any time soon.

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