A few years ago, the much-publicized takedown of the Silk Road — an online marketplace for illicit activities of all kinds — put the “Darknet” into public awareness for the first time. Since then, government agencies and law enforcement entities have issued dire warnings about the dangers lurking in these hidden corners of the internet. But in a digital world where personal information is available for the taking, the anonymity of the Darknet might be valuable for anyone concerned about protecting privacy online — not just those with something to hide.
The Surface Web, the Deep Web – and the Darknet
The internet is made up of many parts — billions and billions of sites around the world, transferring data continuously over a vast network of servers and nodes. But not all of that data is accessible in the same way. The “Surface Web” that most people use every day consists of sites and data based on links that can be indexed by search engines like Google or Bing.
But a great deal of entirely legitimate information is not accessible online through links, and so it’s never indexed. Many websites contain information that can only be found by using on-site search boxes. Likewise, databases held by government or corporate entities may not be available to a search engine’s crawlers — and some data simply doesn’t contain relevant keywords for search. This is the world of the “Deep Web,” and many people use it every day without realizing it.
The Darknet Offers Deliberate Anonymity
The Darknet is a part of the Deep Web, but only a small part — and the information it contains is deliberately cloaked in anonymity, hidden from standard internet service providers and the search engine indexing of the Surface Web. In the Darknet, users’ IP addresses and other kinds of information are bounced through a series of worldwide nodes to conceal them, and transactions are conducted with cybercurrency such as Bitcoin, and concealed behind layers of encryption.
Anyone can access the Darknet, though guides for doing so typically come with warnings about the dangers that lie ahead. All that’s needed is to download a special browser. The best known and most popular of these is the TOR browser, which also allows users to access the Surface Web like any other browser does. Other Darknet interfaces include I2P and Freenet, and users can add an extra layer of anonymity by using any of these with a virtual private network, or VPN.
The Darknet and the Search for Online Privacy
Some advocates of Darknet privacy point out that the dangers of the Darknet may be an exaggeration. They say that if the average user can access the Darknet with a few relatively simple steps, it’s certain that government and law enforcement agencies have done that too — and are on the watch for questionable activities there. And many of the illegal goods and services traded on the Darknet are also readily available on the surface web. Given these considerations, what makes the Darknet so dangerous?
The answer may lie in the Darknet’s promise of privacy for all. Since the Silk Road became the public face of the Darknet, it also became a convenient cautionary tale used by law enforcement and the government to warn users away from ways to conceal personal information from their view. But recent high-profile hackings and the growing list of threats including online scams and malware point out just how vulnerable personal information can become when it’s posted on the Surface Web in any way.
Though it’s often said that there’s no need to worry if there’s nothing to hide, in the digital world that isn’t always true. And that makes the anonymity of the Darknet appealing not only for those with criminal intent — but for anyone who wants to keep personal information safe from prying eyes.