Every Question You Have About the Dark Web, Answered

It's time for a crash course.

Dark web
Brought to you by Universal Pictures

'Unfriended: Dark Web' is new to Blu-ray, DVD and Digital.

Imagine you’re at a family BBQ, explaining “the dark web” to an older relative who heard about it on the news. Gradually, as you watch your student’s eyes glaze over, a thought crystallises: maybe you don’t actually have your facts straight. Yet on you forge, hoping your know-it-all teenage cousin isn’t eavesdropping.

Thankfully for us dark-web dummies, help is at hand. First up on the crash course is the new horror movie Unfriended: Dark Web, which plays out all your worst anxieties about the internet’s evil twin. The movie – which unfolds entirely in the claustrophobia-inducing confines of a computer screen – begins with the tech-savvy Matias (Colin Woodell) logging into a stranger’s laptop. With his friends connected on Skype for their regular game night, Matias discovers the laptop’s rightful owner has some twisted plans to get it back.

If Unfriended doesn’t have you burying your laptop to pursue a happy Luddite life, it’s time for a dark-web crash course. To help shed some light, we’ve called on a real-life expert: Melbourne-based investigative journalist and author Eileen Ormsby. Ormsby runs the All Things Vice blog and literally wrote the book(s) on the subject: 2014’s Silk Road and 2018’s The Darkest Web.

Uh, What Actually Is The Dark Web?

Let’s start with the basics. “The dark web is the collective name we give to the websites that can’t be accessed on the regular web – which we call the ‘clear web’,” Ormsby says. “They require special software to get to them, and both website hosts and users are hidden from each other and anyone else trying to track them.” This means websites doing very illegal things can operate “openly and brazenly” without a whole lot of risk for the real people behind them.

And, as you’re no longer a noob, don’t go mixing up the terms ‘deep web’ and ‘dark web’. As Ormsby explains: “The deep web is just everything that you won’t get to using Google or any other search engines, such as the pages behind a paywall or password – your banking details, for example. The dark web makes up a really, really tiny fraction of the deep web.”

OK, So How Do I Get There?

Believe it or not, you don’t need to be a modern day Jonny Lee Miller in Hackers to find the dark web. You need only download the right “darknet” software: the most popular option, Tor, is free and open-source. “There’s nothing illegal about Tor, and it was originally developed by the US military to protect military secrets,” Ormsby says.

That said, you can find plenty that is illegal with Tor. Your new software opens up a web browser that resembles Firefox but can access dark web sites, whose addresses end in .onion rather than the usual .org or .com. Many of these .onion sites act as black markets for drugs and assorted digital dirt, generating hundreds of millions of dollars each year. You’ll also find no shortage of scams happy to take your hard-earned Bitcoins.

“You get darknet markets that look exactly like eBay or Amazon and are almost as user-friendly,” Ormsby says. “They are open to the masses, and anyone can go and browse through pictures of cocaine, heroin, arms, poisons, stolen identities and financial information, pop them in a basket, and buy them at the checkout.”

And Who Hangs Out There?

Dark web devotees come in various different shapes and vices. For many, the initial attraction was Silk Road, which Ormsby describes as “the trailblazer for mass-marketed point-and-click drugs markets.”

After authorities shut down Silk Road in 2013, a new crop of sellers took over its turf. These imitators didn’t exactly share Silk Road’s free market ideals, peddling a wider range of illegal goods. “Mostly, they were run by crooks and business people who didn’t care what was sold on them, as long as they got their cut,” Ormsby says.

Of course, a lot of heinous things happen on the dark web, including the sharing of illegal pornography, most commonly child exploitation material. Unsavoury characters come with the territory. While writing The Darkest Web, Ormsby investigated a murder-for-hire site, Besa Mafia, which she suspected to be a sham. The site’s owner didn’t take kindly to the scrutiny, bombarding Ormsby with threats of violence.

Despite its very real seedy side, there are a lot of dark web myths. “Many people believe there is a further, deeper, darker section of the dark web, called Mariana’s Web or the Shadow Web, where only a select few can unlock the greatest horrors,” Ormsby says.

All those supposed gladiator fights, “red room” snuff movies and human experiments are, dear reader, “just creepy stories.” Truly terrible “hurtcore” sites do exist, but you’re just as likely to find a flood of shoddy fakes.

Is The Dark Web All Super Dark?

Not quite as dark as Unfriended, no. Downloading Tor doesn’t make you a criminal: plenty of people use it to maintain privacy. It’s not all identity theft and drug deals on the dark web, either – a host of fascinating communities operate there anonymously without violating any laws.

And, finally, remind your relative at the BBQ to keep that news report in perspective. “By far the biggest myth propagated by tabloid media is that the dark web is 10 times larger than the internet,” Ormsby says. “It’s infinitely smaller than the clear web.”

(Lead image: John Schnobrich)

Unfriended: Dark Web is out on Blu-ray, DVD & Digital on November 21.