UPDATED BY
Matthew Urwin | Dec 12, 2023

Below the surface of the internet — whose web pages are indexed by popular search engines — exists something called the deep web, and further below that, the dark web.

The Deep Web vs. the Dark Web

The deep web is a layer of the internet that’s not indexed by search engines and requires further permissions to access, like a paywalled academic resource or an employee-only corporate website. The dark web is another layer of the internet where users are anonymous and illegal activities, such as drugs or weapons trading, may occur.

While each serves different functions, the surface web, deep web and dark web all operate in tandem and overlap more than you might think, according to Nick Donarski, the chief technology officer at blockchain company ORE System.

“The ‘depth’ analogy is just something that we users have applied to describe the content found on private networks,” Donarski told Built In. “They all use the same copper or fiber lines, and exist in parallel with one another.”

 

What Is the Deep Web?

Search engines only access a fraction of the internet. The vast majority of the internet exists outside the realm of a Google search, and the first layer below the surface-level internet is what is called the deep web. 

“The space can be used for private game servers, private chats, or even hosting e-commerce sites,” Donarski said. “It works just like the ‘normal’ internet.”

There are many reasons why organizations or companies would want to store certain information on the deep web rather than the surface web, the majority of them innocuous, like an online shopping inventory. 

Some parts of the deep web require additional layers of encryption or permissions to access. Think of your email inbox: the information contained within can’t be accessed by anybody through a Google search because it’s password-protected. Social media is another example — anybody can visit Twitter or Facebook’s main landing page, but only you can view the DMs you’ve sent to your friends.

The deep web is also used by corporate organizations that want to protect sensitive business-related information, such as hospitals with online networks for internal use only.

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What Is the Dark Web?

The deep web provides users a level of security or privacy, but it can’t offer full anonymity. In order to have that, you’ll need to go one step further down into what is called the dark web.

“The deep web is the portion of the internet that for some reason is not indexed and therefore cannot be searched by search engines like Google,” said Jon Clay, VP of threat intelligence at cybersecurity company Trend Micro. “The dark web is a part of the deep web and typically relies on darknets or networks where connections are made between trusted peers.”

The dark web is a layer of the internet where users can fully mask their IP addresses in order to anonymously access or share certain content. The anonymity provided by the dark web does indeed make it ideal for people looking to engage in illicit activity. But the dark web isn’t a violent or criminal place in and of itself — it just depends on how you use it.

“I think of situations like the dilemma that’s facing people who are pregnant and seeking an abortion in the United States,” Alexis Hancock, director of engineering at San Francisco-based non-profit the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), told Built In. “I imagine that Tor could be useful to them in this case.” 

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What Are the Differences Between the Deep and Dark Web?

When navigating beyond the surface web, there are a few key differences to keep in mind when venturing into the deep and dark web.
 

The Deep Web Is More Accessible

There isn’t any one way to access the deep web — it just depends on what you’re looking for. You need passwords to access your work email, or you’ll need to follow an internal link to find the right shirt to buy for an event. It takes more effort to access, but it doesn’t require the same level of legwork that accessing the dark web needs.

 

The Dark Web Provides More Layers of Encryption

There is only one way to access the dark web, and that’s through an onion router. The most famous of these is Tor, which totally encrypts your identifying information before connecting you to dark websites. 

“It’s not called an onion router for no reason,” Hancock said. “Tor wraps your connection layers of encryption, so by the time your request reaches its destination on the Tor network, your IP is essentially masked.” 

 

The Dark Web Offers More Anonymity 

Tor and other onion routers like I2PFreenet and Subgraph OS aren’t the only way to mask your identity online, but they are the most comprehensive. Internet users familiar with encryption and cybersecurity likely know about VPNs, which can also mask your IP, but only to a certain point.

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What Are Uses of the Surface, Deep and Dark Web?

The surface, deep and dark web serve distinct purposes. Here are a few reasons why people rely on these varying parts of the web. 

  • Surface Web: Used for everyday activities like browsing public websites, accessing social media platforms and shopping on e-commerce sites.
  • Deep Web: Used when logging into personal email and social media accounts, or accessing paywalled news sources.
  • Dark Web: Used to anonymously access censored or sensitive content.

 

How Safe Is the Dark Web?

If the dark web lets users anonymously engage in illegal or dangerous activity, why does the government allow it to stay up and running? The answer may surprise you.

“Tor is actually heavily funded by the U.S. Department of State,” Hancock said. “The government also benefits from anonymity in their operations.”

The dark web’s anonymity makes it a safe space for whistleblowers, which also makes it a valuable source of information for the government. Additionally, the technology for onion routing was actually developed by the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory to provide levels of protection for classified government communication online. For these reasons, a shutdown of the dark web by the government is extremely unlikely, said Javier Vargas, VP of research and development at cybersecurity company Lumu.

“There is illegal activity happening on the surface web, but we wouldn’t consider taking the entire internet down for that reason,” he said. “Taking down the deep web would require coordination from several countries and many would argue that is a violation of rights.”

For all its bad rap, the dark web isn’t exactly the Wild West. Tor and the dark web provide total anonymity from an internet connection standpoint, but an IP address is only one way you’re identifiable online. Governing bodies have many ways of tracking down users who engage in criminal activity, even on the dark web. Whether you’re browsing the surface web, the deep web or the dark web, Hancock said the same advice applies — proceed with caution.

 

Frequently Asked Questions

What is deep web vs. dark web?

The deep web is the part of the web that can’t be reached through typical search engines and often requires getting through additional layers of encryption to access. The dark web goes a step further, providing even more layers of encryption to grant users complete anonymity.

Who uses the dark web?

The dark web is often associated with those conducting illegal activity. However, people also use the dark web for legitimate reasons, like accessing government-censored content and sharing vital information with journalists.

Is it illegal to use the dark web?

It’s not illegal to use the dark web. While criminal activity does occur on the dark web, how people choose to use the dark web is what matters.

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