What is the Dark Web?
The “dark web” is a term synonymous with lawlessness, an underworld rife with shadow men trafficking contraband in digital secrecy. While it is a world foreign to most, the dark web’s reputation precedes itself as data breaches and black market activities dominate headlines. While no one is immune to the dangers of the dark web, by familiarizing yourself with the facts, you can find practical ways to safeguard against virtual predators.
Levels of The World Wide Web
The World Wide Web is divided into two segments: (1) the visible, surface web and (2) the invisible, deep web. The surface web is what most consider the “normal” internet, comprising everyday dealings on sites like Gmail, Facebook, Yahoo, Amazon, etc. This version of the web includes websites that can be accessed by the public and indexed by a search engine like Google. Despite being the most familiar sector of the internet, the surface net only makes up about 4% of the World Wide Web.
The invisible, or deep web, is about five hundred times the size of the surface web and accounts for 96% of the World Wide Web. It is a subset of the Internet that is veiled beneath HTML forms, undiscoverable by search engines. While characterized by restricted access, the majority of the deep web does not contain anything illegal. Some common examples include government databases that require membership login, company web pages with employee-only access, or organization-specific repositories. While many believe that the deep web and the dark web are one and the same, the dark web is in fact a subcategory of the deep web.
How the Dark Web is Accessed
Those unacquainted with the dark web often believe they can stumble upon it in a moment of virtual wanderlust; the reality, however, is that the dark web can only be accessed through specific software programs such as Tor, Freenet, and I2P. Tor (an acronym for “The Onion Router”) is the most widely used dark web browser. Tor allows for anonymity by bouncing encrypted information through specially configured computers, thereby masking the visitor’s true IP address.
History of the Dark Web
While this dark sector of the internet is known for attracting some of society’s shadier users; ironically, the dark web was created by American Intelligence experts in the 1990’s seeking to design an undetectable method of communication. The technology eventually fell into the hands of hackers giving rise to a global community of cybercriminals.
Bitcoin: Currency of the Dark Web
Transactions made on the dark web are paid for in untraceable digital funds known as cryptocurrencies, the most well-known being Bitcoin. Bitcoin, created in 2009, utilizes a distributed digital ledger known as blockchain that enables direct peer to peer transactions, dispensing with the need for middlemen (e.g., banks, Venmo, PayPal, etc.). Due to its decentralized nature, cryptocurrency transactions can be carried out on a virtually anonymous basis. These instant, untraceable transactions were the catalyst for the dark web’s adoption, facilitating a digital market beyond the reach of government surveillance.
The Black Market and other Byproducts of the Dark Web
The dark web is a veritable breeding ground for illegal activity, a virtual marketplace of malware, money laundering, illegal weapons, and other illicit material. Scrambled IP addresses provide a cloak of anonymity, encouraging terrorists to meet, the hiring of hitmen, and the propagation of child pornography. On the dark web, drugs can be bought at the click of a mouse, as easily as making a purchase on eBay or Amazon. It is estimated that about $15 million worth of illicit transactions were made yearly on “The Silk Road” (the first modern darknet market) before being shut down in late 2014.
In addition to “The Silk Road” saga, the dark web has garnered media attention through high-profile stories involving whistleblowers such as former NSA contractor Edward Snowden and Julian Assange (founder of Wikileaks). In each of these cases, leakers were able to disseminate classified information without detection by utilizing the dark web.
The Dark Web and Identity Theft
Identity theft is a sprawling epidemic gaining traction with the proliferation of the dark web. In 2016, tech giant Yahoo reported that private data from 1 billion user accounts had been stolen; in 2017, cybersecurity experts determined that the true number of accounts breached totaled 3 billion. The entire database of stolen information was made available for purchase on the dark web. In the fall of 2017, consumer credit reporting agency Equifax announced an identity theft event impacting about 145.5 million U.S. residents. This major hack took place in a series of breaches from May to July of 2017, exposing nearly half of all Americans to identity theft. While, presently, there is little evidence of Equifax-specific data on the dark web, cybercriminals are notoriously patient, waiting months or even years before acting on stolen information. This breach has awakened many to the reality of identity theft and the consequences of cybersecurity ignorance.
Credit Card Theft
In the world of identity theft, the slang term “Fullz” is used by credit card hackers to denote a full package of an individual’s identifying information. Each package includes a name, Social Security number, birth date, and corresponding account numbers. These Fullz sell on the dark web for as low as $10 apiece. Here, details like a mother’s maiden name or adjusted gross income can be included for additional costs. Tax filing data such as W-2’s and 1040’s are also for sale. Millions of credit card numbers from countries including U.S. , South Korea, and Japan can be bought for the price of a movie ticket.
How to Prevent Identity Theft and Strengthen Cybersecurity
While the threat of breaches and malware become more serious by the day, there are some preventative measures that can be taken to defend against cybertheft. These defenses include using two-factor authentication on all online accounts where private information is stored, installing and maintaining antivirus software, and ignoring links sent from unknown or unverified email accounts. Further methods of protection include purchasing identity theft insurance, transaction monitoring, Social Security number monitoring, and credit monitoring. Some companies even offer “Dark Web Surveillance,” to ensure your information has not been exposed.
With the frequency and severity of cybercrime only projected to escalate, the dark web will undoubtedly continue to be a virtual safe house for criminal enterprise. Taking proactive measures to keep your data secure is essential to mitigating the potential damage done by those lurking on the fringes of the internet.