Conceptual Rendering of the Surface Web, Deep Web, and Dark Web

The World Wide Web was created in 1989. Interestingly enough, the web was built by research physicists so that they could share their research findings with one another’s computers. Today, that idea has evolved into the greatest collection of human knowledge in history.

Modern society now finds itself in the strange position of being utterly dependent on a technological system that is both very disruptive and yet is poorly understood. The World Wide Web, commonly known as the Web, is an information system where documents and other web resources are identified by URLs, which may be interlinked by hypertext, and are accessible over the Internet.

The Web is comprise of three layers: Surface Web, Deep Web, and Dark Web. Most people regularly access the Surface Web many times per day. Certain parts of the Deep Web are accessed just as frequently. While the majority of the Deep Web contains perfectly legal content, there are websites and databases in this layer of the Web, which contain illegal content. However, due to inaccurate reporting by the media, some people use the terms Deep Web and Dark Web interchangeably. The Deep Web and Dark Web are not synonymous, and there are a number of key distinctions between the three layers.

The Surface Web

The Surface Web (also referred to as the “Visible Web”) is the portion of the World Wide Web that is readily available to the general public and searchable with standard web search engines. These are the websites most people encounter when using a browser such as Firefox, Chrome, or Internet Explorer. These websites are indexed and and can be crawled by search engines. Search engines like Google, Bing, and Yahoo crawl and index these webpages to make them available for the search users. The Surface Web includes non-paywalled news and media, much of social media, and all the free content that can be accessed through a standard search engine. Facebook, YouTube, Wikipedia, most standard blogs, and basically everything that can be seen on any search engine’s result page (SERP), are examples of the Surface Web. Despite its prevalence in our everyday lives, only about 4 percent of the World Wide Web is part of the Surface Web.

This concept is commonly illustrated using an iceberg, as I have done in the infographic below. While most people interact with the Surface Web constantly, this can be deceptive because the vast majority of the web is not visible. The Deep Web comprises the remaining 96% of the web.

Conceptual Rendering of the Surface Web, Deep Web, and Dark Web | Source: Casey Botticello

The Deep Web

The Deep Web, invisible web, or hidden web are parts of the World Wide Web whose contents are not indexed by standard web search engines. The content of the deep web is hidden behind HTTP forms and includes many very common uses such as web mail, online banking, and services that users must pay for, and which are protected by paywalls. While many people do not realize it, information on the Deep Web is utilized quite frequently.

The Deep Web includes academic databases, subscription and paywalled content, medical records, scientific reports, abandoned and niche sites that are not indexed (intentionally or not), multilingual databases, financial records, government resources, data dump websites, and organization specific repositories of information. Examples of your interactions with the deep web include checking your Gmail, reading a subscription based article on The New York Times, or checking you Bank of America account balance online. A good rule of thumb — If you have to log in to one of your accounts, the information you access is on the deep web.

While the majority of the Deep Web contains perfectly legal content, there are websites and databases in this layer of the web, which contain illegal content. However, due to inaccurate reporting by the media, some people use the terms Deep Web and Dark Web interchangeably. The Deep Web and Dark Web are not synonymous.

The Dark Web

The Dark Web is a portion of the deep web that has been intentionally hidden and is inaccessible through standard browsers and methods. Instead, the dark web uses what’s called The Onion Router hidden service protocol. “Tor” servers — derived from “The Onion Router” — are undetectable from search engines and offer users complete anonymity while surfing the web. The Dark Web operates with a high degree of anonymity. It hosts harmless activities and content, as well as criminal ones.

You have most likely heard of the Dark Web in the context of the arrest of Ross Ulbricht and the FBI’s closure of the Silk Road. The Silk Road was an online black market and the first modern darknet market, best known as a platform for selling illegal drugs.

What’s on the Dark Web?

The Dark Web can be used by people who are looking to procure drugs, weapons, and other illicit items. It also functions as a safe haven for journalists, human-rights advocates, and political dissidents operating in countries hostile to their work.

But the Dark Web is better known for dark content — meaning, illegal and sometimes disturbing content. For instance, here’s a sample of illegal things you can find on the dark web.

  • Stolen information. When there’s been a data breach, there’s a chance the accessed information — from Social Security numbers to bank card numbers — will end up for sale on the Dark Web. You can also buy things like log-in credentials, hacked Netflix accounts, and more.
  • Illicit substances. Illegal drugs — and prescription drugs — are peddled on the Dark Web. You might also find toxic chemicals that can cause other types of damage.
  • Disturbing and dangerous items and services. It can get ugly fast. Things like gore, murderers-for-hire, human trafficking, child pornography, body parts, counterfeit goods, and guns for sale can be found on the Dark Web.

In short, you can buy just about anything you can imagine — including things you’d probably be better off not imagining.

Sample Dark Web Screenshots:

If you want a better look at the Dark Web, I’d recommend you check out The Dark Net: Inside the Digital Underworld. This is one of the few credible and comprehensive books I’ve read on the subject.

Is the Dark Web Safe?

The dark web may be safe in some cases — think, legitimate content — but not in others.

Here are a few safety issues to consider.

  • Criminal element. There’s a chance you will find websites run by criminals. Beyond selling illegal goods and services, they may seek to exploit you and steal from you.
  • Breaking the law. You can be prosecuted for things you do on the dark web. Just because you are doing something online, does not make it legal.
  • Suspicious links. If you click on any links, you may be taken to material you might not want to see. It’s also possible that clicking a link or downloading a file could infect your device with malware.
  • Law enforcement. Law enforcement officials operate on the dark web to catch people engaged in criminal activity. Like others on the dark web, law enforcement can do their work under a cloak of anonymity.

If you decide to venture to the dark web, it’s smart to be selective about the websites you access. I would also recommend reading up

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