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Deep Web vs. Dark Web: What You Need To Know To Stay Safe

Learn the differences between the Deep and Dark Web, how to safely use them, and what you can do to stay safe online.

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      Is Your Personal Information on the Deep Web or Dark Web?

      When Ross Ulbricht launched the Silk Road in 2011, his goal was to create a place where people could anonymously buy and sell anything on the Dark Web. But just two years later, he was convicted of running the largest criminal marketplace of all time — and given a life sentence [*].

      The Silk Road helped bring the Deep Web and Dark Web into the public eye. But today, you’re less likely to hear about criminals selling drugs online and far more apt to hear about cybercriminals selling stolen data on Dark Web forums and marketplaces.  

      According to the latest data from the Identity Theft Resource Center (ITRC) [*]:

      “At least 422 million individuals had their private information leaked in 2022 – with much of that information ending up on the Dark Web.”

      If you’re concerned that your personal information could be floating around on the Dark Web or Deep Web, you need to know what that means for your personal and financial safety. 

      In this guide, we’ll explain what the Deep Web and Dark Web are, how they’re different, what to do if your data has been leaked, and how you can safely access these hidden layers of the internet.


      Deep Web vs. Dark Web: What You Need To Know

      It may seem like the websites, blog posts, and online news stories you access every day are vast and unending, but the truth is that they make up a mere 10% of the full internet. Instead, the majority of websites and online tools exist in what are known as the Deep Web and the Dark Web.

      Here’s a quick rundown of each of the three layers of the internet:

      • The Surface or “Open” Web. This is the visible part of the internet and includes any site or service that can be accessed using web search engines (Google, Yahoo!, Bing, etc.). In other words, it is the internet that you use every day. Estimates vary, but the surface web likely makes up less than 5% of the total internet [*]. 
      • The “Deep” Web. This is a “hidden” part of the internet, made up of the information that you can’t find via search engines. This includes email, databases, archives, password-protected sites, and private intranets used by organizations. The Deep Web makes up over 90% of the websites found online and is almost entirely legal and safe [*].
      • The “Dark” Web. This is a very small part of the Deep Web that’s made up of web pages that cannot be accessed by normal web browsers due to various encryption and security measures. On the Dark Web, criminals can keep their identities secret while taking part in illegal online activities, making it a haven for cybercrime. But the Dark Web can also be used for good reasons — for example, whistleblowers and activists often use the Dark Web to communicate.

      Each layer of the web can be used for different purposes. But while most of us are familiar with the surface level, there’s less certainty surrounding the Deep and Dark Web.  

      Here’s a breakdown of the Deep Web vs. Dark Web — how they’re used, how to access them, and the security threats that you should be aware of when using them.

      Deep Web
      Dark Web
      Uses and examples

      Password or login-protected sites. Examples include employee-only websites, email inboxes (like Gmail), private social media accounts, etc.

      Paid subscription sites. This includes publishers who lock their content behind paywalls.

      Anonymous marketplaces and forums. Examples include black market data exchanges, forums, and specialty email inboxes.

      Uncensored journalism and data leaks. This includes corporate or government whistleblowers (such as WikiLeaks) that publish sensitive information on the Dark Web.

      How to access
      Log in to password or account-protected sites. Any time you log in to pages that search engines haven’t indexed, you’re accessing the Deep Web. For example, when you look at your bank balance online or check your email, you’re on the Deep Web.
      Use special software. The only way to access Dark Web sites is via special browsers like Tor or I2P. You must know the address of the site you want to visit.
      The Deep Web isn’t anonymous, as sites know your login credentials.
      The Dark Web is mostly anonymous.
      Approximate size
      More than 90% of the internet is on the Deep Web.
      Makes up less than 1% of the internet.
      It’s legal to access the Deep Web.
      It’s legal to access the Dark Web, but it’s illegal to take part in illicit activities there.
      Security concerns
      Like the visible web, there’s no guarantee that you’re completely safe when accessing the Deep Web.
      Accessing the Dark Web can result in downloading malicious software, being tracked by government monitoring, or becoming the victim of a scam.

      📌 Related: What Is Dark Web Monitoring (and How To Get a Free Scan)

      The Deep Web: How It’s Used, Risks, and How To Access It

      On the visible web, websites appear in search engines like Google or Bing because they’ve been indexed. Robots called “crawlers” or “spiders” sift through publicly available information and index it so that search engines can show it to you when you search for related keywords or questions. 

      The Deep Web is the part of the internet that isn’t indexed. 

      This information remains invisible to search engines like Google for many reasons. It might use anti-robot technologies like CAPTCHAs, store the data in ways that crawlers don’t recognize, or lock the data behind password protection. 

      The main purpose of the Deep Web is to keep private information and content safe and to prevent unauthorized access to specific pages. The Deep Web guarantees that your health records or email inbox don’t show up in Google’s search results.

      How is the Deep Web used?

      The Deep Web is primarily used to store web content that isn’t meant to be publicly accessible. This includes:

      • Websites that require registration to access, like your bank account
      • On-demand media and fee-based services like Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Spotify
      • Password-protected entities like account settings pages 
      • Email systems and inboxes 
      • Legal and medical databases 
      • Private intranets such as those used by corporations
      • Document libraries, image archives, and scientific databases 
      • Government resources
      • Cloud-storage services like Dropbox and iCloud
      • Any private site that isn’t registered or linked to indexed sites

      What are the risks of using the Deep Web? 

      Like the Surface Web, accessing the Deep Web is relatively safe. But that doesn’t mean there are no risks involved.

      Here are a few risks to be aware of before you use the Deep Web:

      • Your personal information may be compromised. Data breaches can give scammers access to passwords and personal information housed in Deep Web sites. 
      • Fewer security measures. Websites on the Deep Web aren’t always protected as well as those on the visible web. Some websites may contain malicious software like malware, spyware, viruses, and keyloggers. 
      • A false sense of security. When signing up for online accounts, many of us don’t think twice before entering sensitive information (phone number, credit card numbers, etc.). But any of this information can be compromised if the site is hacked or breached.

      How do you safely access the Deep Web? 

      Accessing the Deep Web doesn’t require any special software — only your password and login details. However, you can help ensure your safety online by following a few security measures while using the Deep Web, such as:

      • Using strong, unique passwords and a password manager. Securely storing unique passwords ensures that you can’t be hacked by a credential stuffing attack.
      • Recognize the signs of a phishing attempt. Don’t click on suspicious links or respond to emails, texts, or messages that create a sense of urgency or pressure you to give up personal information. 
      • Browse online using a Virtual Private Network (VPN). These tools encrypt your data so that hackers can’t access it — even if they hack your Wi-Fi. 
      • Follow good cyber hygiene practices. This includes regularly auditing your passwords and security settings, updating your privacy settings (especially on social media), and scanning the Dark Web for leaked passwords. 
      • Use antivirus to protect yourself from malicious software. Hackers use viruses that steal your passwords and give them access to your online accounts. Secure your online devices with antivirus software to safeguard them from hacking.

      📌 Related: What Is VPN on iPhones? Why You Need It & How To Turn It On

      The Dark Web: How It’s Used, Risks, and How To Access It

      The Dark Web is a small fraction of the Deep Web that comprises small networks of sites known as “darknets.” The Dark Web started with Freenet, a platform that allowed people to communicate without their identities being found out. 

      Later, the U.S. government developed The Onion Router (Tor) to let their intelligence officers communicate anonymously. This later became open source, leading to the Tor that we see today which lets civilians access the Dark Web, for good or bad.

      How is the Dark Web used?

      The Dark Web is used for many reasons, not all of them nefarious. Here are some of the ways that the Dark Web can be used:

      • Anonymous communication. Privacy enthusiasts, activists, whistleblowers, and journalists often use the Dark Web to communicate without being heard or tracked. Dissidents in countries with oppressive governments also use the Dark Web to avoid political censorship.
      • Buying and selling illegal goods and services. Criminals use the Dark Web as a digital black market to sell illicit items including weapons and illegal drugs. It’s also used to access the latest cyber threats, distribute illegal pornography, and even hire hitmen. These illegal activities are usually paid for with anonymous cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin. 
      • Marketplaces for stolen data. Personal information such as account passwords, credit card credentials, Social Security numbers (SSNs), and more are also sold on the Dark Web. Account passwords, credit card details, and forged documents sell for as little as $3 on the Dark Web [*].

      What are the risks of using the Dark Web?

      Unlike the Surface Web and most of the Deep Web, the Dark Web can be dangerous to use if you don’t know what you’re doing. Here’s what can happen while using the Dark Web:

      • Your device can be infected with malware and viruses. Malware is frequently encountered on the Dark Web. By exploring the Dark Web, you put yourself at risk of infection. Criminals can also inject malware into their “node” — so if you just connect to that network, your device will be infected.
      • You may be targeted by hackers and scammers. Hackers regularly operate on the Dark Web and may target internet users who appear vulnerable or inexperienced. Scammers are also active on the Dark Web and will con you out of your money or personal information if you let them.
      • You might accidentally break the law. If you end up in the wrong place on the Dark Web, you might accidentally see material you don’t want to see or access illegal marketplaces. While it’s relatively hard to end up somewhere by accident, it’s a risk you don’t want to take. If a law enforcement agency tracks you to a particular address known for criminal activity, you might be monitored.

      📌 Related: Have I Been Hacked? How to Recognize & Recover From a Hack

      How do you safely access the Dark Web?

      • Use a Dark Web browser such as the Tor Browser. Tor offers a level of anonymity that can protect you from many hackers and from being tracked online. 
      • Use a virtual private network (VPN). This will help to protect your identity as well as guard against malicious nodes. 
      • Install a quality antivirus. Also, make sure you avoid downloading suspicious or unknown files.
      • Be vigilant and remove yourself from a situation if something doesn’t feel right. 
      • Use throwaway accounts to hide your identity. Don’t use your real name, and avoid paying for anything using identifiable payment cards.
      • Activate identity theft and financial fraud monitoring to keep an eye on your accounts. If someone gains access to your accounts, these tools can warn you before scammers can do too much damage. 
      • Use a non-administrator account to avoid malware getting control of your computer in the worst-case scenario.

      📌 Related: The 10 Best Dark Web Monitoring Services in 2024

      What is the Tor Browser?

      The Tor Browser is free software that enables access to the Dark Web without being identified.

      When you search for a site on the Surface Web, your network can be traced back to your IP address. In comparison, the Dark Web uses a system called “Onion Routing” to anonymize the IP address of users and websites.

      When you access a Dark Web site through software like the Tor network, your traffic is re-routed through several layers across a network of other computers to make it harder to trace it back to you. 

      Is The Dark Web Dangerous or Illegal? 

      The Dark Web is often framed as the online version of a biker bar or gang headquarters; but in reality, it’s just another tool that can be used for both good and bad purposes. 

      There’s nothing inherently illegal about using the Dark Web or Tor – in fact, the Tor Project is heavily funded by the U.S. Department of State [*].

      The danger comes from how you use the Dark Web — for example, if you’re putting yourself in situations in which you could get hacked or scammed. 

      📌 Related: What To Do If Your Email is Found on the Dark Web  →

      Was Your Personal Data Found on the Dark Web? Do This! 

      The Dark Web is most dangerous if your personal information is leaked after a data breach. 

      Many people underestimate this danger since it happens so frequently nowadays. But, any leaked information can give scammers an opportunity to target you. 

      Your first step is to check if your personal information is for sale on the Dark Web. Use Aura’s free Dark Web scanner to see if you’ve been the victim of a recent data breach. 

      Then, do the following to secure your online accounts and identity: 

      • Change your passwords and enable two-factor authentication (2FA). If a scammer or hacker gets your password, they'll target your accounts as soon as possible. Change all compromised passwords to unique, 12-character phrases. Then, turn on 2FA or multi-factor authentication (MFA) to add another layer of security. 
      • Monitor your credit and bank accounts. Keep an eye on your account statements and credit reports to ensure that no one is accessing your financial data. Consider signing up for credit monitoring to be alerted if anyone takes out unauthorized loans or credit on your behalf. 
      • Contact your bank or credit card company and freeze your credit. If you notice anything out of place, or if you think your identity has been stolen, contact your financial institution immediately. Most banks and card companies have fraud departments that can help you restore ownership of your accounts. Then, apply for a credit freeze or lock to stop scammers from opening lines of credit in your name. 
      • Consider signing up for an all-in-one digital security provider. Aura’s award-winning solution includes identity theft protection, credit monitoring, and a suite of advanced tools to protect you and your family online — including antivirus software, VPN, password manager, and Safe Browsing tools. And, if the worst should happen, you’re covered by a $1,000,000 insurance policy for eligible losses due to identity theft. 

      📌 Related: How To Find Out If Your Information Is on the Dark Web

      The Bottom Line: Recognize and Protect Yourself From Online Threats

      The hidden layers of the web can be mysterious and intimidating. But keep in mind that no matter what layer of the internet you’re using, your accounts and personal information could be at risk. 

      Whenever you go online, follow best practices to keep your accounts secure against hackers and cyber attacks:

      • Trust your gut. Don’t access potentially dangerous sites or click on suspicious links. 
      • Use a VPN. Encrypt your data so that hackers can’t intercept or steal it. 
      • Create a new, anonymous profile on the Dark Web. Avoid using your real name or any identifying information in your Dark Web username. 
      • Keep your web browsers, operating systems, and antivirus software up to date. Software updates can include important security patches that will keep you safe. 
      • Avoid accessing the Dark Web unless you have a good reason. Make sure you stay away from sites offering illegal activities.
      • Use complex and unique passwords and a password manager. Passwords are your first — and sometimes only — line of defense against scammers. 
      • Get Dark Web alerts when your personal information is up for sale. As soon as you know your information is compromised, update it immediately and warn services and contacts that your accounts could be hacked.  
      • Disable Java and ActiveX in your network settings. These settings can occasionally give malicious hackers remote access to your device. 
      • Protect your devices with antivirus software. Even if you’re comfortable with cybersecurity best practices, scammers can employ devious ways to get you to download malicious viruses. Using antivirus is one of the best ways to keep your devices safe — no matter what you do. 

      For added protection while working, browsing, or shopping online, consider Aura. 

      Aura’s award-winning digital security solution includes 24/7 Dark Web monitoring, robust identity theft protection, and advanced digital security tools to protect your data and devices. 

      Stay safe from online threats. Try Aura free for 14 days.
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