2023, July 04
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Security
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11 min read
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Matt S.

Tor Browser: Dark Web Search Engine Explained

A comprehensive guide about the Dark Web search engine - Tor Browser. Learn to navigate Tor sites safely and explore the internet with enhanced privacy.

The internet is a great, great invention that changed the world. In 2023 it's so big that the total data on it may be somewhere around 175 ZB or 1,75 billion terabytes. And strangely enough, only 4-10% is the surface web we can access with our browsers. The rest is called the dark web. It's hidden away and not available for easy access.
That is if you don't have Tor – the dark web browser, installed. If this caught your interest and you want to understand what Tor is, how it works, what the dark web and what you can find on it, keep reading. We promise this is going to be a fun, intriguing ride!

Dark Web 101 – an overview

The dark web is an anonymized and decentralized set of encrypted networks that was supposedly created by two separate research organizations within the US Department of Defense in the latter part of the 1990s. The goal was to create an anonymous network for spies and their sources to share information. Since then, it has become accessible to the public and very widely used for various purposes.
The picture below perfectly illustrates the sheer scale of the deep and dark web.
Side note: The terms deep web and dark web are often used interchangeably, but their meanings differ. In short, the deep web refers to all unindexed web content. It's not publicly available or easily discoverable via search engines. This article focuses on the dark web, so we'll explain it briefly.

What is it?

The dark web or darknet is a so-called system of overlay networks within the internet. It exists parallel to the regular surface web. Yet, you need specific software, configurations, and/or authorization to access it because it functions on a unique, customized communications protocol. You can't do it with Chrome, Safari or Firefox.
Most of the time, darknets help establish safer, anonymous, F2F or P2P connectivity between networks and users. The most popular way to access the dark web is Tor, the Onion browser. We'll cover it more in-depth later on. There are smaller versions of dark nets that form the whole darknet or the whole dark web together. For example, video streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, and others store their content on the deep web, where you can't access it. Still, a lot of the content there is unknown to most of us because we just can't index all of it.
The illustration with the iceberg best illustrates the sheer scale of the dark web. However, it's often associated with illicit and harmful activities in the media. This isn't entirely truthful, as a study by Terbium Labs 2016 determined that around 48 % or most of the content on the dark web is legal and mundane. At the same time, you must agree that such an environment makes it more convenient for wrongdoers and lawbreakers to thrive.

How is it different from regular/surface web?

Well, for starters, the dark web is much bigger. It's about 24 times as big, and most is just boring stuff, like company databases, medical records, internal sites for government websites, etc.
Secondly, it's much easier to browse the surface web. You can do it with Chrome, Safari, Firefox, Opera, or other browsers you read this blog through. However, you can only access the deep/dark nets using the Tor search engine and/or the Tor Onion browser.
Thirdly, we have to say that the surface web, even with its flaws, is much safer. Everything you share on the dark web is hard or impossible to keep track of and regulate, so sharing data or paying for services, and sometimes even accessing them, is always super risky.

How does it work?

As mentioned, dark web websites aren't accessible with regular browsing. You need to use software or protocols that are very different from what's used for surface web browsing.
When we talk about how it works, it's no different from the regular web; only the way to access it differs. There are still servers that hold the information; there are still domains and websites you can access, and dark web browsers usually have a similar interface to what you can expect to find in Chrome, Edge, Safari, etc.
The dark web browser generally does most of the work for you, masking your true IP by rerouting your traffic multiple times.

Why should or shouldn't you use it?

Let's divide this into two portions – the pros and cons of using the dark web.
Pros
  • Anonymity – sometimes, sharing information may put you and/or people close to you in danger. Wherever there are politics, big money, or criminal activities involved, providing anonymity to sources is crucial. Many media outlets and law enforcement use the dark web and Tor to communicate with sources, even though E2E encrypted messaging apps like Skyda are quickly changing that.
  • More freedom to share information – if you want to access hidden services, you can use Tor. If sharing information may put you in danger, using hidden services would provide some protection.
  • Curiosity – you just want to see what's out there. It's risky but legal and may help you better understand the vastness of the internet.
Cons
  • Lots of illegal stuff – you can buy shoes, clothes, art, and even cars on the surface web. However, the dark web has black markets where you can buy fake documents, guns, illegal services, etc. Forget about getting them; even paying for them is highly illegal, and lots of sellers are probably scammers trying to lure money from unaware individuals. There are a lot of reviews and publications from users sharing their experiences of being scammed.
  • Many scams – since it provides anonymity, you should understand that this works both ways. If you wish to do something, let's say, not 100 % legal, the seller has to carry just as much, and sometimes even more risk. Dark Owl has made a publication about some exit scams by moderators of these illegal, dark markets (Read here). It's worth a read and shows how much you shouldn't trust the dark web.
  • It may cause collateral damage – sometimes accessing or sharing your info on the dark web is enough for hackers and cybercriminals to access your home network, infest your computers, steal your data, hack into your workplace, etc.
To summarize, here's an image from Norton, who sought to find prices for various illegal goods on the darknet markets.
You can buy pretty much anything on the dark web. And, of course, lots of things for sale are very illegal.

About Tor Browser

Now that you know about the ins and outs of the dark web, let's switch our attention to Tor, the Onion browser. This free and open-source app has been around for a while and is worth at least knowing about. It's the best way to access the dark web and can offer additional protection to your data for regular browsing. Let's look at the history of Tor, how it works, and whether it is still relevant.

History of Tor

Don't confuse Tor – the Dark Web browser and Thor – the Scandinavian god of thunder. Although their names sound and are written similarly, you should distinguish one from the other.
Tor stands for onion routing, the primary operating principle on which the browser is based.
The history of the Tor search engine began in the late 1990s when American intelligence wanted a better way to handle secret communications online. US Naval Research Laboratory employees were given this task. After a few years, in 2002, mathematician Paul Syverson, along with two computer scientists – Roger Dingledine and Nitch Mathewson, launched Tor's alpha version. Later, the project became available to the public and is now open-source.
This map graph illustrates both the gross usage of Tor and the more interesting – popularity per internet users. If we focus on the latter, Tor is mostly relevant in countries like Israel, Italy, Spain, France, Moldova, San Marino, Monaco, Andorra, the Netherlands, and Iceland.

How does it work?

You shouldn't think that Tor works magically or has some kind of super unbreakable algorithms. It's just clever computer and network engineering that makes it very difficult, actually, near impossible, to track a user's true identity.
The key to having it all work is a lot of Tor relays and employing the principle of onion routing. The Tor network has thousands of relays that your connection passes through randomly, whereas with the regular web, it's just one or two relays (if you're using a VPN). If someone wants to discover who you truly are, they must backtrack a lot. And backtracking would only peel a single node (just like an onion peel) at a time. Reaching the source is near or impossible.
Onion routing is a technique that involves encrypting and routing internet traffic through multiple servers, usually assigned at random, to preserve anonymity.
This is why the Tor browser feels much slower than your regular browsers. That's because your traffic goes through many reroutings before reaching the intended destination.

Current status of the Tor Browser

Estimates claim that nearly 2.5 million people use Tor – the most popular dark web browser- daily.
The app gets continuous updates, even 20+ years after its release.

Installing and using Tor

Installing, setting up, and using Tor is quite easy. We'll share a step-by-step guide on how to install and use it.
  • Go to the official Tor project website (Here's a download page).
  • Choose your operating system and download the file.
  • Launch the installer and proceed with the installation.
  • Open the Tor app and wait for it to launch.
  • Begin browsing.
This is how the browser window should look like. It isn't all that different from all of our regular browsers.

Accessing dark web search engines and dark web sites

If you already have the Tor Browser installed, the easiest way to use the dark web and to find Tor sites is by using a dark web or Tor search engine. Torch, Not Evil, and Ahmia are the most popular. You can find sites there. All of them should have the .onion extension.
Alternatively, if you already know the site URL with the extension .onion, you can type it into the address bar and visit directly.

So, is the Dark Web good or bad?

We know that this question looms in everyone's minds.
Before answering, it's important to put things into perspective and recognize that the system is neither inherently good nor bad. If anything, its underlying purposes are made out to be very positive. However, the dark web and Tor, like any tools, can be used for good and bad purposes.
While it provides a niche for anonymous communication, uncensored information sharing, and privacy protection for individuals living under oppressive regimes, it also harbors illegal activities and malicious actors. It's crucial to be aware of the potential risks when accessing the dark web, such as exposure to illegal content, malware, scams, and law enforcement monitoring.

Safe and Secure Alternatives for Communications

We'd like to highlight the emergence of alternative communication channels for safe and secure information sharing. E2E-encrypted communication apps like Skyda are pushing aside the dark web (Learn more).
They offer total privacy and anonymity with a much more convenient user experience when compared to Tor. Send messages, share images, audio recordings, and files without fearing the risk of being spied on or monitored. If you want to anonymously share information without fear of reprisals, Skyda on Android and iOS is the way to go.

A summary

So, to sum up – the dark web is a vast, mysterious, and sometimes even dangerous place. You should access it only if you accept the risks of the unregulated and chaotic nature of the content that's on there. Remember that you can do that with Tor, but simpler and more convenient alternatives exist for sharing sensitive information and staying anonymous.
Sources:
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