The dark web is out there. But is it as sinister as you've heard?When we speak of the Internet we talk about websites such as Amazon, CNN, YouTube, and Wikipedia. These websites belong to something we all know and love called the “worldwide web.” Sites such as these are easily accessible via web browsers such as Google and Firefox, and are part of what people in the know refer to as the “surface web.”

What many don’t know is that there is another layer to the internet widely known as the “deep web.” Websites exist on the deep web, but are not accessible through typical browsers, or findable by many search engines, and as such receive very little traffic, attention, and scrutiny.

A subset of this deep web is the “dark web,” a group of worldwide networks (darknets) which utilize the public internet, but require special configurations to access. This dark web is host to a number of popular sites, usually collections of peer-to-peer networks like Freenet and I2P.

Accessing many of these websites requires special authorizations, passwords, and programs. What differentiates dark web sites from the standard internet is that user IP addresses are hidden, invisible, or difficult to track. This grants a level of anonymity unavailable to regular users of the worldwide web.

In addition, and perhaps due to the anonymity factor, small communities have developed within the dark web. Members of these communities often use specialized terms in order to differentiate themselves from the worldwide web, which they refer to as the “clearnet,” due to its not being encrypted.

A big focus of users who take part in these networks is a desire for privacy from governments, corporations, and individuals who they feel may disagree with them. This “paranoia” is amusing when you realize that Tor, the anonymous communication software of choice among dark web users, was developed by the U.S. military as a way to protect and route intelligence communications online.

The best explanation of what the dark web is, and what it looks like, may come from Daniel Prince, Associate Director of Security for Lancaster University:

Just for a minute imagine that the whole internet is a forest — a vast expanse of luscious green as far as the eye can see. And in the forest are well worn paths — to get from A to B. Think of these paths as popular search engines — like Google — allowing you as the user the option to essentially see the wood from the trees and be connected.

But away from these paths — and away from Google — the trees of the forest mask your vision.  Off the paths it is almost impossible to find anything — unless you know what you’re looking for — so it feels a bit like a treasure hunt. Because really the only way to find anything in this vast forest is to be told where to look.

This is how the dark web works — and it is essentially the name given to all the hidden places on the internet. Just like the forest, the dark web hides things well — it hides actions and it hides identities. The dark web also prevents people from knowing who you are, what you are doing and where you are doing it.

Experts widely disagree on what comprises the most prominent aspects of the dark web. Most do agree, however, that a substantial amount of the dark web is composed of botnets, pornography, and black-market operations.

While these black-markets typically offer drugs, legal and illegal, for sale, one can buy or access pretty much anything, including fake college degrees, stolen credit card numbers and Netflix accounts, and hacked government data. (There is even a company in Thailand selling the spirits of deceased children — although how you put value on the souls of dead children, and also what might show up in the mail after you place [and pay for] your order, is beyond me.)

There is also “Anonymous Cat Facts,” showing literally nothing but random feline facts. While exchanges of money in this realm can be done via traditional methods like credit cards and bank accounts, the dark web’s tender of choice is the relatively new cryptocurrency Bitcoin.

The dark web isn’t just for buying and selling. Whistle-blowing groups have established a foothold for security purposes far from the prying eyes of government. Other groups operating in this arena include hacktivists, social media organizations and even terrorists.

Where criminals go, the long-arm of the law is sure to follow. Law enforcement routinely makes use of the dark web to stay abreast of the bad-guys and gather evidence for court proceedings. In fact, governments seem to relish making examples out of those they catch.

The most high profile example is Ross Ulbricht, founder of “Silk Road,” the internet’s largest market for illegal drugs. Despite an estimated million users, and anonymity, Ulbricht was eventually caught and now faces life imprisonment for assorted crimes.

The presence of fringe groups aside, the dark web is not inherently bad. It’s merely a haven created by and for the kinds of people who favor seclusion from prying eyes. The internet itself is a product of the people who choose to use it, and a more secure and anonymous internet isn’t necessarily a step backwards.

The dark web is out there. But is it as sinister as you've heard?In some cases it could actually be a step forward as a way to combat government overreach into the lives of private citizens. As the dark net grows in popularity, we may well see more individuals choosing freedom over the current safety, stability, and comfort of the worldwide web and its household names.

The dark web is also not inherently dangerous. Many people merely use it for services such as avoiding copyright laws. Others argue that it’s a necessary step in defending personal privacy.

Having said that, the dark web isn’t for everyone, particularly employees on the clock. There have been rumors of Indian IT professionals being arrested for utilizing the dark web. While no one seems to be able to verify the truth of these tales, we do know for certain that the dark web is fraught with risk.

It has proven a lure for illegal activity of all types and at times sites on it have infected users’ computers with various forms of malware. Anything forbidden by governments can and does take place on the dark web. Its reputation for criminal activity is well-deserved and no doubt will continue to be in the future.