Dark Web Dangers-
Decoding the Hidden World of Cyber Criminals
According to a recent report released by United States-based cybersecurity firm, ‘Resecurity’, the personal data of 81.5 crore Indians has been leaked and exposed on the dark web in October 2023. The leaked information includes names, phone numbers, addresses, Aadhaar, and passport details of Aadhaar registered users, which are available for sale online.As the investigating agencies try to track and trace more information about it in order to prevent any major losses, it is time for us to decipher and decode the hidden world of cybercriminals in the dark web. In this article, we will try to understand as to what is dark web and why do criminals find it a safe haven to operate and execute their malicious agendas through the anonymity of dark web as well as try to explore the efforts of law enforcement authorities to combat dark web criminal activities and discuss various safety tips to protect ourselves from dark web threats and scams.
Let’s imagine web as an ocean. Now, the surface web is the top of the ocean which appears to spread for miles around, and which can be seen easily or can be termed as ‘accessible’ by internet surfers. The deep web can be understood in terms of the deeper part of the ocean beneath the surface and finally, the dark web is the bottom of the ocean, a place accessible only by using special technologies.
Foremost, it is important to understand the difference between web and internet as both are different from each other. The World Wide Web (WWW) is a web of interlinked Hyper Text Markup Language(HTML) pages accessible over the internet. It can be imagined as a network of online content which can be assessed by the internet. Thus, the Internet is actually the connection that enables access to the World Wide Web.
Surface webis the part of the web that we are all aware of and use on a regular basis!It is that portion of the World Wide Web that is readily available to the general public and it can be easily searched with web crawlers and standard web search engines such as Google, Bing, Yahoo etc., and can be visited using common web browsers like Mozilla Firefox, Microsoft’s Internet Explorer or Edge, and Google Chrome that don’t need any additional configuration. The surface web looks huge but in reality, it covers only around 4 to 5percent of the whole internet. The websites we commonly access like Facebook, Google, Amazon, Wikipedia etc., constitute the surface web or clear web.
Surface web can also be understood as the opposite of deep web which is not crawled or indexed by the normal search engines like Google, Yahoo, etc. Therefore, the section of the internet that is being indexed by search engines can be referred to as the ‘Surface Web’, ‘Indexed Web’ or ‘Visible Web’.Crawling refers to the process whereby the search engines like a virtual spider crawl and index the webpages available on the web, create a database to make it accessible for users. These then rank these websites to display the most relevant results to the user whenever he/she puts a query about them.
Deep webor hidden web is the invisible or underground web which can be defined as that part of the World Wide Web whose contents are not crawled and indexed by standard web search engines for any reason. The deep web hosts approximately 7,500 terabytes of data, compared to the approximately 19 terabytes hosted on the surface web. An estimated 550 billion individual documents are hosted on the deep web compared to the one billion on the surface web. The average monthly traffic received by the deep web is 50% more than surface websites. A normal user cannot access the contents of the deep web which are hidden behind Hypertext Transfer Protocol(HTTP) forms, and includes many common uses such as web mail, online banking, and services that users must pay for, and which is protected by a paywall, such as video on demand, some online magazines and newspapers, and many more. Content of the deep web can be located and accessed by a direct Uniform Resource Locator(URL) or Internet Protocol (IP) address, and may require password or other security access past the public website page.The data stored in the deep web ranges from personal information (military data, cloud data or any organization’s personal data) to financial records, banking information, academic databases, legal dossiers, medical records, social media profile information, and scientific and government confidential records. The content on the deep web can be accessed only if one has the special authorization or login credentials to do so. For instance, when we are generating One Time Password (OTP) or Personal Identification Number (PIN) to access our online banking account, it means we are gaining access to the contents on the deep web. You cannot simply gain access to your online bank account by typing your name and account number on the search engine. You have to authenticate your identity before you gain access to it. This explains the working of the deep web. Our unique email addresses also exist on the deep web as the search engines do not index it but it is fully accessible with our unique user ID’s and passwords.Same is the case with our accounts on Amazon or Netflix.
The Dark Web, often called as the underbelly of internet, is referred to as a layer of information and pages that can only be accessed through so-called ‘overlay networks’, which run on top of the normal internet and obscure access. Deep web is 400 to 500 times larger than the surface web whereas the dark web forms only 0.01 % of the deep web and 5 % of the total internet.Special kind of software is needed to operate on the dark web because a lot of it is in encrypted form, and most of the dark web pages are hosted anonymously to have a high degree of privacy and escape the scrutiny and surveillance of general public and law enforcement authorities.The Dark Web is the deepest layer of the web and a subset of the Deep Web.
The sole intention of the users for using the dark web is anonymity. Individuals generally use the dark web to hide their data or engage in illicit activities in the guise of anonymity. The dark web is mostly used for illegal porn and trading in drugs, weapons, organs and much more. Recently, a website called as the silk road which existed on the dark web and was notorious for being an online black market was shut down by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in 2013 for selling drugs.
Not all deep web is the dark web but all dark web is the deep web. The basic difference between the deep and the dark web is that one can access the former with relevant credentials and proper authorization. Dark web, on the other hand, requires a special software/browser with a suitable decryption key to access it. Also, data available on the Deep Web is not hidden on purpose. It’s just difficult for the existing search engine technology to access the information on the Deep Web and make some sense of it. Contrary to popular belief, accessing the deep web is not illegal. Full search engines such as Google Scholar, the Library of Congress, and JSTOR, enable searching through otherwise-isolated records of articles and books. This gives access to the academic section of the Deep Web.
Criminals generally prefer to execute their vicious activities like hacking, identity theft, etc., through the hidden mode of dark web as it is quite easy to send an email anonymouslywithout being tracked or traced by the law enforcement agencies. This is because the dark web affords the possibility to hide the IP addresses/ Internet Service Provider (ISP)/locations of the users and masks the digital footprints in encrypted forms.The dark web can be accessed using special software and an anonymizing browser like I2P, Freenet or TOR. The Onion Router (TOR) is commonly known as an ‘Onion’ browser and contains multiple layers. It enables a user to remain completely anonymous i.e., it neither traces the user’s IP address/location nor records any detail.
The Tor browser facilitates the user’s web page requests through a chain of proxy servers that renders the IP address untraceable and unidentifiable. The Tor network works by encrypting every message and content at every single point which makes it extremely difficult and almost impossible to track their point of origin or occurrence and the users’ data is routed through a large number of intermediary servers affording the concealment of their identities and giving anonymity.
The dark web is also considered to be a safe haven for Black Hat Hacking. Hackers not only use the dark web for hacking but also for selling the rewards of hacking such as user credentials, financial information, corporate data and much more.URLs in the dark web are starkly different from regular web addresses. All sites on the dark web end with “. onion,” as opposed to “.com” or “.org” commonly seen on the surface web. As such, only browsers with specific proxies are allowed to access those sites. It is the chosen platform for illegal trading of weapons, government or scientific databases, malware, drugs, exotic animals, banned movies/literature, fake documents, human/animal organs, dead bodies and much more!
However, it needs to be highlighted that dark web was originally developed as a technology in the 1990s by the U.S. Military Researchers for the purpose of exchanging sensitive and confidential data and communicate in an anonymous manner amongst the U.S. spies across the world. But the factor of anonymity also facilitated the riseof criminal activities on dark web which got further boosted with the launch of Bitcoin in 2009.Right now, there are innumerable cryptocurrency frauds which are getting executed through the hidden den of dark web.
However, dark web is not just all about gory, criminal and illegal activities. The cloak of anonymity of dark web has some benefits also as it empowers people and is often used by the whistleblowers to expose the corrupt systems without the fear of retaliation or punishment in the real world. It also provides a space for the freedom of expression to people who are afraid to voice their dissenting opinions in a hostile environment. In fact, website like the Wikileaks has its home on the dark web. The dark web also contains forums for victims of rape, racial and religious discrimination, rainbow communities, domestic violence and much more. As the dark web is nameless and faceless, it allows people to share their grief and personal stories without the fear of identification or harassment. The dark web also contains a lot of literary publications that are banned in the real world. The Dark Web is also used by several news outlets and intelligence agencies of the government to securely hide and protect their sensitive and critical sources of information.
The question arises – Is it illegal to use the dark web?
Well, it is not illegal to browse the dark web. It is totally legal to use the TOR browser to access a non-indexed page on the internet. If a page is not indexed by search engines and is not accessible by normal search engines like Google, Yahoo, etc., it does not imply that it’s trying to promote illicit activity. So, you can visit as well as browse the dark web by using TOR in a legal manner, but if you indulge in buying or selling illegal items like drugs or counterfeit documents or promote smuggling or human-trafficking kind of banned activities under the law, then, you will surely be considered as breaking the laws of the land and your actions would be deemed illegal liable for suitable punishment.
How to navigate the dark web in a safe manner
The risks on the dark web does not arise from browsing it but comes in when we happen to download illegal materials which contain viruses or malware, like trojans, worms, or keyloggers. If we are not careful while browsing the dark web, we can stumble upon illegal or disturbing activity and also become prey to unsuspecting scams and lose our personal data.
Well, by using certain precautions, one can easily ward off the threats emanating from accessing the dark web.
- Always download the TOR browser from the official website at torproject.org and never download the fake version of TOR from any other links circulated by spammers or potential hackers which can contain malware or viruses to infect your device. Do not click on any suspicious links.
- Use a good Virtual Private Network (VPN) service to hide and encrypt your data while browsing the dark web. Using the VPNs can help maintain your privacy and increase your anonymity on the internet by obfuscating your IP address and routing your internet traffic through an encrypted tunnel. As a result, the hackers, governments, and your Internet Service Providers (ISPs) cannot eavesdrop on your online activity, even if it’s on unsecured networks such as public Wi-Fi. For the best protection, it is advisable that a VPN and Tor should be used together and it is recommended to connect via a VPN to Tor, rather than vice versa.Though these appear to be quite similar, the Tor emphasizes anonymity, and a VPN emphasizes privacy.
- Also, once you have everything set-up, it is important to ensure that there are no leaks in your IP addresses which could reveal the true version of you. So, the best way is to turn on your VPN and head to websites like ipleak.net and dnsleaktest.com, where you can find if the IP address getting displayed is of your device’s real location or of the one provided by the VPN service.
- Take adequate security precautions like using multiple passwords for different accounts and install best antivirus scanners on your digital devices. Keep the webcams on your laptops covered with a piece of paper as these are the easiest to be hacked.Turn off the location on your device.
- Try to use prepaid, unidentifiable debit cards before making any purchases. The aim should be to not use anything that could be used to identify you — whether online or in real life.The best way to find out if your email has been compromised in any kind of data breach is to check websites like https://haveibeenpwned.com/. This website allows you to type in your email address and see if it’s been compromised by the hackers. Also, another effective way is to use burner email addresses (temporary emails) for browsing and encrypt the messages with Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) encryption. PGP is a security program developed in 1991 and it has been extensively used since then to decrypt and encrypt emails as well as authenticate email messages through digital signatures and file encryption.
Monitoring the illegal activities on the dark web is a cumbersome task for the security agencies. No doubt, the VPN’s and TOR browser afford the users a high level of anonymity and hide their identities and location on the internet and makes it very hard to be tracked down, but it is certainly not impossible for the police to trace the criminals with high-end technologies available to them. Therefore, keep in mind that whatever you do on the internet definitely leaves a digital footprint somewhere and it is better to not participate in any type of criminal activities.
Also, as the crimes on dark web are gaining notoriety, it is urgently required to provide cybercrime awareness training to the law enforcement agencies for identifying and collecting the dark web evidence for analysis and simultaneously, undertake massive capacity building of the police department in the digital space. At the same time, the focus should also be directed towards forging cross-jurisdictional partnerships among investigative agencies. Special investigative units with trained manpower and high-end technology needs to be constituted who have the advanced knowledge in tackling the illegal activities on dark web.
Disclaimer : The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the writer/author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of Babushahi.com or Tirchhi Nazar Media. Babushahi.com or Tirchhi Nazar Media does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.