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What Exactly Is The Dark Web?

There have been countless headlines in the past few months about passwords and credentials getting leaked or stolen from businesses. Remember that massive data breach at Equifax a few years ago? What about worries that Facebook had user credentials compromised? Even healthcare facilities losing track of healthcare records?

Security experts have been finding a ton of passwords popping up from these sources and many others on the Dark Web.

I’m sure you’ve heard something at this point about hackers and the Dark Web. But what exactly is the Dark Web?

Let’s put the Dark Web into a little context. You can think of it as part of the World Wide Web. The World Wide Web is made up of three major parts: the Surface Web, the Deep Web and the Dark Web.

The Surface Web—this is where most of us spend the majority of our time online. When you’re searching for a gift for your kids, trying to find a new restaurant for Friday’s happy hour, or checking the weather, all of that content is in the surface web. Any webpage that is searchable by Google is in this part of the World Wide Web.

The Deep Web—this is where you’d find all of your accounts. Anything that is secured with a password requirement is in the Deep Web. Think bank accounts when you think about this area of the web that is easy to find, but not indexed or accessible directly from a Google search.

The Dark Web—now this is where things get a little more interesting.  The dark web is a part of the World Wide Web that is effectively hidden from everyone. Google is not able to find it, nor are other search engines. It can only be accessed if you know the exact address of the site (by address I mean the IP address, not a typical web address).

Where did the Dark Web Come From?

The Dark Web originated from principles initially developed by the intelligence community to protect information exchange online. Work by two mathematicians from the Naval Research Laboratory conceived of a project termed The Onion Routing project in 1997 (better known today as Tor). The researchers released the project to the public domain for anyone to use, the rationale to get more people to use it to disguise official communications.

Since its inception, this secretive web of anonymous traffic has attracted much of the modern day criminal activity, although it also attracts activists and others wary of state-run surveillance.

How do criminals access the Dark Web?

Most common is by using a special browser called Tor (a platform the US government created in the late ‘90s), although it is possible to access it through other secure browsers. Tor is a routing system based on bouncing traffic off of multiple IP addresses to disguise which computer you are using. This makes it really difficult for someone to see who you are—if you are visiting content on the Dark Web.

Many sites on the Dark Web end in the extension .onion, which is only accessible by the Tor browser. Dark Web sites cannot be accessed through Google or any equivalent search engines. Lists of browsers and instructions to access the Dark Web are available on a variety of Wiki pages or Reddit feeds (Note: accessing the Dark Web is dangerous business. Unless you are well-trained and have an iron stomach, I would NOT recommend you try).

How big is the Dark Web?

Very hard to say, although some people have tried to quantify its size. In fact, a study by King’s College in London found about a quarter million pages on the Dark Web. To put this in perspective, Google has an estimated 30+ trillion pages at the time of the study. Why wouldn’t the Dark Web be larger than the surface web? Anonymity. To keep a really large cyberspace secretive and exclusive would simply be too difficult.

How are criminals exploiting the Dark Web?

Criminals create nefarious sites within the Dark Web to sell, publish, or trade services, products and information. People on them are selling, buying and trading illegal goods and services. One key commodity that we often see sold are credentials to get into business networks—many of which have originated from breaches from social media and other websites—passwords that actually are being used by your users on your network, too!

How can you keep your data safe from ending up on the Dark Web?

Stay informed—make sure you or someone on your team understands the current threat landscape. Know how criminals are getting onto business networks and secure your network to prevent from those threats.

Maintain a clean network—keep your network up-to-date and well-monitored to prevent a large data breach or cyberattack.

Train your staff—make sure everyone on your team knows how to identify a phishing scam or understands their part in your organization’s cybersecurity plan.

Get a second opinion—if you’re concerned about your users and their identities and the fact the criminals are exploiting their credentials to steal and extort them, how long will it take until that criminal realizes those users work for your organization and start targeting you?

Cybersecurity experts recommend getting a network security assessment to see where your security vulnerabilities lie, but also to see if your users’ information is being sold on the Dark Web. F

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