What is the Dark Web? 

The Dark Web is notorious and widely known in the world at large. A decade ago, this might not have been the case. As cyber attacks accelerate and nefarious actors all over the globe seek to more rapidly connect with buyers of illegal goods and information, the term Dark Web has entered the lexicon in a prominent way.

According to a description from Tulane University, the Dark Web was leveraged by the United States Department of Defense as a means of communicating anonymously. Its talent for keeping activity anonymous remains, but now protects malicious actors instead of innocent citizens of a given country.

The Dark Web is a place where sellers of illegal drugs, identities, information (passwords, account numbers, etc.) weapons, and many other illegal forms of physical materials and digital information look to traffic these materials across borders. In terms of cybersecurity, the Dark Web is a place where Ransomware-as-a-Service kits and phishing methodologies are traded and leveraged daily.

We really can’t put too fine a point on this fact: When it comes to cybersecurity in particular, the Dark Web is the sourcing ground for attackers to get the tools they need to disrupt your organization and business. Accordingly, it’s become paramount for security teams all over the world to respond faster than ever.

How to Access the Dark Web

In attempting to access the Dark Web, there’s an invisible line that a person acknowledges they’re crossing – or maybe they don’t. Either way, no one is accessing the Dark Web with a sense of optimism and happiness. It’s a place to buy nefarious things to do bad deeds.

There are many ways to access the Dark Web, including one technique known as onion routing. Onion routing uses multi-layered encryption to create anonymous communication over a computer network. Unpacking these layers of encryption is sort of like peeling an onion.

A web browser used to access the Dark Web is designed to work with the Tor network to browse both the Dark Web and normal websites anonymously, without leaking user information. This ”Tor browser” is the most well-known implementation of onion routing used on the Dark Web.

Is it Illegal to Access the Dark Web? 

This is where things might get just a bit confusing, as the Dark Web in 2023 is nearly synonymous with illegal activity. Indeed, the vast majority of activity taking place there is illegal.

So, believe it or not, it’s not illegal to access the Dark Web; there are actually reputable brands and companies who have sites accessible via the Dark Web. It can simply be a dangerous proposition to peruse the Dark Web and engage with whoever you may meet, especially if it means revealing any personal data.

What is the Dark Web Used for? 

The Dark Web is used by cybercriminals to buy and sell illegal goods and services, coordinate attacks, distribute malware and phishing kits, and share other prebuilt exploits. Specifically, bad actors could use the Dark Web to buy and sell stolen employee credentials from a business. Exit scams are also a major activity on the Dark Web.

An exit scam is put into place when a market administrator or a vendor wants to retire, and is doing so while taking as much money as possible from their buyers. Some additional examples of materials for sale on the Dark Web could include:

  • Personally Identifiable Information (PII): This is any information that a person may have submitted to an online retailer or social networking app. 
  • Financial information: This is data that details access to bank accounts, wealth-management information, investments, and other private monetary information related to individuals or businesses. 
  • Governmental secrets: This category includes any information related to a nation's defense or active military/cyber-intelligence campaigns. 
  • Trade secrets: This type of data denotes information as to how a business might maintain a competitive advantage within its industry. 
  • Physical materials that aid in theft: An example from this category would be "skimming" devices that steal credit card data from point-of-sale platforms. 

What is the Difference Between the Deep Web and the Dark Web? 

The difference between the deep web and the dark web is not necessarily the “findability” of information that exists on either, as both of these types of online information repositories feature data that is not indexed by search engines like Google or Bing. The main difference can be described by the following two aspects:

  • Legality of content: Illegal content of the type we discussed above is the primary material available on the Dark Web. If you have the right browser to access dark sites, then chances are a bad actor is going to be able to access nefarious content – and potentially purchase it, should they so desire – without any roadblocks in between.
  • Accessibility of content: That brings us to the differentiator between the Dark and Deep Web: accessibility. Content on the Deep Web typically isn’t of the nefarious sort, but it is usually gated. Examples of this would include private/encrypted files, content only available to paying customers or subscribers, and internal networks like a company intranet.

These differences aren’t necessarily clear-cut, as there are overlapping aspects between the Deep and Dark Web. As opposed to the Surface Web – also known as the Open Web – where anyone with an internet connection can access public-facing websites all over the world, the Deep and Dark Web are attempting to house information that doesn’t necessarily want to be found. Therefore, it’s likely that not all deep- and dark-web file repositories represent good intentions.

As stated earlier, neither of these connected content repository networks are illegal to access. Indeed, they must frequently be accessed by cybersecurity organizations conducting threat hunts or defending their networks or those of their clients.

For instance, if a threat actor is in possession of stolen data from a large healthcare provider, security personnel acting on behalf of the company are likely to conduct a large portion of that investigation throughout the Dark Web. Threat intelligence gathered from the Deep and Dark Web is likely to help future threat hunting teams when analyzing telemetry from beyond their own networks, such as the Deep and Dark Web.

How to Protect Yourself from the Dark Web

These days, it can seem increasingly difficult to protect valuable assets and data from the reaches of threat actors. This is particularly true for enterprise organizations working with sensitive data in key sectors like healthcare, energy, and finance. That’s why it’s more critical than ever to go on the offensive.

Gain Visibility into Hacker Communities

Cybercriminals lurk in the dark web to methodically coordinate their attacks, sell illicit goods, distribute malware and phishing kits, and share other prebuilt exploits. Go behind enemy lines to identify threat actors and their intentions at the earliest stages so you can properly prepare your defenses.

Get Early Warnings of Targeted Attacks 

With proper monitoring resources, you can gain visibility into threat actors and their activities. This includes accessing restricted channels and automating intelligence gathering to anticipate attacks targeting your organization, employees, and customers.

Discover New Hacking Tools and Ransomware Kits

Monitor exclusive dark web forums and the private channels of threat actors. In this way, you’ll uncover new cybercriminal tactics and tools used to automate attacks, test for weaknesses, and scam your employees and customers. It’s important to step into their shoes to understand how perpetrators can and will attack you.

Understand and Engage Your Adversaries

It’s critical to use a Dark Web monitoring solution that can keep a continuous eye on your adversaries and engage with threat actors. From these activities, the solution should be able to gather data samples, uncover motives, and help you deploy smarter cybersecurity workflows.

Read More on the Dark Web

The Dark Web: Rapid7 Blog Posts

Whitepaper: Dark Web 201