The dark web consists of networks and websites that can only be accessed through special software that anonymizes your identity. While the dark web can be used for legitimate activities, it’s often associated with illegal activities, such as buying and selling stolen personal details. If your information is available there, you may be at risk for identity theft. A dark web monitoring service like ours can alert you if your sensitive data is found where it shouldn’t be.

Under the surface of the internet lies the dark web, a collection of networks and websites that can’t be accessed through traditional search engines or browsers.

The dark web can be used for legitimate activities, such as communicating privately. However, because it offers complete anonymity, the dark web is often used for illegal or malicious online activities, such as drug trafficking, fraud, and money laundering.

In fact, identity thieves often use the dark web to buy and sell stolen personal information.

In this quick guide, you'll learn why the dark web exists, how cybercriminals use it, and how to monitor for your own information there. 

Why was the dark web created?

There was no single person or organization that created the dark web; rather, it developed over time as the internet evolved.

That being said, the dark web’s history can be traced back to the 1990s, when researchers in the U.S. Naval Research Lab began developing an anonymous way to route traffic through the internet.

This led to the creation of the Tor Browser, which was originally developed to protect the identity of secret agents. Short for “The Onion Router", Tor routes your web traffic through multiple layers (hence the onion metaphor). This process makes your IP address and browsing activity untraceable.

Tor was released to the public in 2004, allowing everyone to access the dark web.

As of today though, the dark web is not just limited to Tor; other browsers, such as I2P and Freenet, can be used to access the dark web as well.

Where is the dark web?

To understand where the dark web exists, we’ll first need to examine the three layers of the internet: surface web, deep web, and dark web.

The surface web

Also known as the “visible web,” the surface web is the layer of the internet that most of the world uses. This is where you can conduct general web searches, access social sites, or read the news.

To view the surface web, you need just two things: an internet-capable device and access to the internet. There are no secret URLs or specialized software. Just head over to Google, or whichever search engine you prefer, to access the surface web.

There are many similarities between selling goods and services on the surface web and the dark web. But there are some key differences.

Here’s one to note: when searching on the surface web, you don't need to enter a website’s direct URL or even know that it exists. That’s because every website on the surface web is “indexed” — meaning it’s visible to search engines. That’s not the case with the deep and dark web (more on that later). 

The deep web

There’s a common misconception that the deep web and the dark web are the same thing, but they are actually two very distinct entities.

So what is the deep web?

Also known as the “invisible web” and the “hidden web,” the deep web consists of all the online pages that aren’t indexed by search engines (for example, password-protected pages).

The vast majority of these sites are completely legal, and in fact, a great many of them are vital to how we securely use the internet. Here are some examples of content you might find on the deep web: 

  • Email 

  • Online banking

  • Subscription video services

  • Healthcare records

  • Legal documents

The dark web

At the very bottom of the deep web is the dark web. Also referred to as the “darknet”, the dark web is a part of the internet that is intentionally hidden and not accessible through normal web browsers. 

While the deep web’s content is essentially hidden from search engines, you can access most of this information in the same way you do sites on the surface web — as long as you have the proper credentials and access.

This isn’t the case with the dark web. 

While the dark web uses the internet, it’s only accessible via special software, authorization, or configurations. If you tried to access a dark website with a traditional browser, like Google Chrome, Safari, or Internet Explorer, you would receive an error message.

In the dark web, there are no .coms, .nets, or any other web suffix you’ve probably used in the past. There are only URLs that end in .onion.

What is on the dark web? 

Because of its anonymity, the dark web is frequently used by a wide variety of criminals, including cybercriminals, hackers, terrorists, and drug dealers.

Illegal marketplaces are a popular way that criminals sell illegal goods and services on the dark web. These marketplaces function similarly to an e-commerce site on the surface internet, like Amazon or eBay.

Except, you may find the following illegal items for sale on dark web marketplaces: 

  • Drugs

  • Firearms and weapons

  • Counterfeit items

  • Stolen personally identifiable information (PII)

  • Botnet malware

A popular payment method on the dark web is cryptocurrency because it allows users to purchase and transfer funds more anonymously. 

How do identity thieves use the dark web?

The dark web provides identity thieves with an anonymous and untraceable platform to sell, purchase, and exchange stolen personal information.

Here’s how it works: When a criminal obtains your personal information (whether it’s through phishing, data breaches, etc.), they may post it on the dark web for sale. This type of information is valuable because it can be used for identity theft and fraud. 

Entire batches of information stolen in data breaches can be sold in sets, allowing criminals to purchase whole troves of personal information at once.

What type of information may be posted on the dark web? It’s not uncommon for Social Security numbers, driver's license numbers, credit card and bank account information, usernames and passwords, and medical records to be found there. If an identity thief gets their hands on your data, they could use it to set up fraudulent accounts, purchase items without your permission, or apply for loans on your behalf.

In addition, identity thieves may share tips, tricks, and strategies for stealing and exploiting personal information with one another, through forums and chat rooms on the dark web.

Hackers on the dark web may also purchase or rent botnets (which are networks of computers infected with malware) that can then be used to conduct distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks or spread malicious software.

Is the dark web illegal?

Not everyone who uses the dark web is a cybercriminal, hacker, or identity thief, nor is it illegal to access the dark web.

The dark web can be a vital resource for those who seek to do good as well. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), for instance, has an official dark web website for people who want to contact the organization but don't want to be tracked.

Taking part in cybercrimes on the dark web, however, is a crime punishable by law.

How to monitor for your information on the dark web

The good news is that you can take steps to protect your information from ending up on the dark web. Here are some key recommendations to follow:

Now as an extra precaution, if you're not already protected by a dark web monitoring service like the one we offer, consider getting one right away.

How our dark web monitoring feature works

If you’re an Allstate Identity Protection member, log in to your account dashboard to activate dark web monitoring.

Then, enter the details you’d like to watch out for on the dark web. You can monitor for login credentials and other personal information, such as your Social Security number, IP address, credit and debit card numbers, driver’s license number, and more. 

From there, our artificial intelligence searches the dark web for your information — while our human operatives infiltrate forums that are protected from AI searches — so we uncover your PII even behind closed doors.

If we uncover your sensitive details where they shouldn’t be, we'll let you know, so you can take quick actions — like changing your password or freezing your credit file — to protect yourself from fraud. 

If you have additional questions about our dark web monitoring feature, visit our Help Center to learn more.