SPRINGFIELD, Mo. — It’s sometimes called the underbelly of the internet. The dark web.
It is made up of a series of websites hidden from the general public, yet accessible to anyone across the world.
For those who’ve studied its secrets, the dark web can be a place where criminal activity can go on without the eyes of the law watching.
Dr. Shannon McMurtrey, a professor of cyber security at Drury University, says the dark web serves different purposes depending on where you live.
“In a lot of countries where free speech is limited and the censorship is heavy, the dark web is a way for people to get access to information without the worry of censorship,” says McMurtrey. “However, If you live in a country that has an open, free internet and you can just get online and search for whatever you want, there tends to be more criminal activity that takes place on the dark web.”
The dark web was originally created by the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory to ensure operatives could communicate with each other without being tracked.
The U.S. Naval Research Laboratory open-sourced the software for what’s now the dark web in 2004. It’s been managed by a non-profit called the Tor Project in Massachusetts. McMurtrey says it gained popularity in the U.S. due to the dark web allowing criminals to buy, sell and trade without law enforcement watching.
“Passwords, credit card numbers, social security numbers, it’s all available online. Certainly, the drug trade is what made it famous, when the Silk Road was taken down that was probably when it came on the radar for most people.”
The dark web can be accessed through a specific browser called “Onion browser” or “Tor Browser.” McMurtrey says it’s similar to the Google Chrome and Firefox browsers we use every day, only this one is able to access sites you wouldn’t find on the surface of the internet.
McMurtrey says a majority of the dark web is innocent citizens from other countries looking for ways to access an everyday website that are blocked by their government’s firewall.
However, he says the minority of the dark web’s content can be traumatizing for some people.
“There’s no end to human depravity, that’s one thing that history has taught us and unfortunately the dark web is a magnet for human depravity. Certainly, there are marketplaces on the web for things that are stomach-turning and there’s a lot of things that are sold on the dark web online that shouldn’t be.”
When using the dark web, your computer’s location cannot be tracked, but McMurtrey says there may be some government agencies sophisticated enough to be capable of tracking your entry and exit points from the Tor browser.
“Someone with sufficient resources might be able to time and track traffic that goes into the dark web and comes out of the dark web and draw some conclusions about where that person might be. So, I wouldn’t say conclusively that you can be tracked, but I certainly would encourage people to have good intentions when they use the technology.”
While McMurtrey says the dark web can be a useful tool to access information or discuss topics with privacy, he says there’s little reason a typical U.S. citizen would need to use it.
“There are things that you just don’t want to see, you don’t want to be a part of and you can stumble across it without necessarily trying so when you start digging into those websites that you can’t get to with a normal web browser, you don’t know what’s going to be there until the page loads, and there’s no reason to do that.”