The Dark Web and the Power of Anonymity

Have you heard of the Dark Web? What about the Darknet or TOR? If not, this is the growing, underground web that you will be learning a lot more about in the near future. We all use the web routinely -- Facebook, Google, the site where this article is posted. The websites we visit and post to daily are on what is called the Surface Web -- sites that are indexed and findable via a search engine.

Underneath the Surface Web is the Dark Web, a complex matrix of encrypted websites that let users remain anonymous. To better understand the scope of the Dark Web, imagine the Surface Web as the tip of an iceberg and the Dark Web as the monolithic chunk of ice that rests, invisible under the water's surface.

The Dark Web is similar to the traditional Internet in the sense that is allows for the distribution of content to users, via websites, email programs and other online services. The one key difference is that the Dark Web is based around the transmission of this data in an anonymous way and typically can't be accessed via traditional means (i.e., a search on Google). Services such as TOR, I2P and Darknet have been established over the past few years and allow users to access and distribute information and data without having to worry about being monitored or identified.

This anonymity has ultimately led to a large amount of illegal activities and services being offered on the Dark Web. You may have heard about the 2013 shutdown of the notorious black market website, Silk Road. This website was accessible via the Dark Web and users could buy and sell drugs and other goods and services without much fear of discovery. Ever wonder what happens to credit card information stolen in a major data breach like Target's December 2013 breach? There are entire chatrooms and message boards on the Dark Web that are dedicated to the selling, buying and trading of this information to other identity thieves.

The rise in popularity of digital currencies, like Bitcoin, has spurred the growth of the Dark Web. Digital currencies offer ease and anonymity to those that know how to use them.

So what does the growth of the Dark Web mean to the casual Internet user?

The key takeaway is to understand how easy it is for a savvy cyber criminal to make money off of your identity -- with little risk due to the anonymity of the Dark Web.

Seemingly innocuous information that you post online can be used to compile a profile that is then sold on the Dark Web. An email address can help a cyber criminal log in to an account. Your mother's maiden name or the name of your pet are common password reset questions. Be wary of what you post online because it may end up for sale on the Dark Web.

Another thing to keep in mind is that anonymity is not something that can ever be guaranteed when using the Surface Web (and incredibly difficult to achieve on the Dark Web). We are starting to see more apps and websites like "Secret" and "Whisper" that offer people a way to share information and communicate with others in a semi-anonymous fashion. However users of these sites are still transmitting data via traditional Internet protocols (i.e., https and https). These apps are an attempt to build a more accessible Dark Web-like market, but leave a trail that can be traced. A good example of this is the popular photo messaging app, Snapchat. Snapchats are supposed to "self-destruct" after a set amount of time after being sent. The company recently settled a lawsuit with the FTC after it was discovered that photos were not being deleted as originally claimed. It is extremely difficult to completely erase something from the internet.

There is no doubt that anonymity -- or even perceived-anonymity -- is an incredibly powerful tool on the Internet. It has led to a multi-billion underground market and is currently leading to an emerging market of semi-anonymous apps and websites. When it comes to achieving anonymity online, it is incredibly difficult for the savvy Dark Web user and near-impossible for the casual user. Remember to be wary of what you post online. You never know where your information may end up.