If you binge-watched the second season of House of Cards, along with a reported 15% of Netflix's 44 million subscribers, you may be newly interested in the Deep Web. Slate has done a good job of describing what the Deep Web is and isn't, but they don't tell you how to get there.
First: the hot sheets. Subreddit forums for DeepWeb, onions, and Tor are the way to go in terms of gathering a backgrounder for entry points into DarkNet. Unsurprisingly though, much of the information currently on the surface Internet about the actual underbelly of the web is outdated. Ever since Silk Road's takedown last year, the Under-web has been changing.
To get into the Deep Web these days, you first have to download the Tor add-on for Firefox. By downloading the Tor Browser Bundle from the Tor Project you are securing your anonymity to browse, which is the main draw for using Tor. Once you have downloaded the browser bundle, Tor builds a circuit of encrypted connections through a randomized relay. In layman's terms that means that your online activity is covered as Tor randomly pings your IP address from one place to the other, making whatever you do less traceable.
Multiple Redditors urge reading the Tor Project's warning page, where they discourage torrent file sharing and downloading while using Tor. The idea is to follow protocol maintaining your anonymity while browsing, chatting, or navigating. This obviously includes giving away your personal information like email addresses, phone numbers, names, time zones, or home addresses in any context.
The newest iteration of the Tor browser, Tor 4.0, was released in October 2014. It contains a variety of product tweaks designed primarily to enable use behind China's massive Internet firewall.
While the Deep Web houses the retail of weapons, drugs, and illicit erotica, there are also useful tools for journalists, researchers, or thrill seekers. It's also worth noting that mere access through Tor is not illegal but can arouse suspicion with the law. Illegal transactions usually begin on the Deep Web but those transactions quite often head elsewhere for retail, private dialoguing, or in-person meetups; that's how most people get caught by law enforcement officials.
For mobile users, several browsers exist which purport to—more or less—allow Tor to be used on an Android or iOS device. These browsers include OrWeb, Anonymous Browser Connect Tor, the mobile Firefox add-on, Onion Browser, and Red Onion. However, it is important to note that security concerns have been raised for all of these browsers and that anonymous browsing cannot be 100% guaranteed for any of these.
After reading up on the material, downloading Tor, and logging out of every other application, you can finally open Tor's Browser Bundle to begin secure navigation. Network navigation is slow once you are inside because of the running relay, so expect pages to load at a snail's pace.
The most common suggestion on Reddit is to start at the "Hidden Wiki." The Hidden Wiki has a similar interface as Wikipedia and lists by category different sites to access depending on your interest. Categories include: Introduction Points, News/History, Commercial Services, Forums/Boards/Chans, and H/P/A/W/V/C (Hack, Phreak, Anarchy, Warez, Virus, Crack) just to name a few. Under each of these headings are multiple sites with an onion address and a brief description of what you will find there.
Many of the listed sites on the Hidden Wiki though have been taken down. Deep Web Tor, Tor Jump, Tor Answers, and Tor.info were all busts. When the feds took down Silk Road, many other sites also fell victim and/or are currently down for maintenance. Still, gun, drug, and child porn marketplaces operate even though they are on much smaller scales and with a fraction of the reach than that of Silk Road or Atlantis, another drug-peddling site.
Some pages are less nefarious, but arouse your curiosity nonetheless. StaTors.Net is the Twitter for Tor users and Hell Online is the antisocial network with 369 members and 15 different groups. Torchan resembles Reddit, though you need to enter the username and password torchan2 for access, and is still up and running. But recent activity except in Request and Random rooms has all but stopped.
In the Random room a user asked for a new link to Silk Road and the responses were limited. Another user posting an image of a child fully clothed featuring bare feet pleading for a site featuring underage bare feet. An Anonymous user responded: "Someone please give this guy a link, this poor guy has been looking/asking for over a month now."
The DeepWeb Link Directory in the site OnionDir had some promising hyperlinks and some not-so-promising ones like the now defunct Deep Web Radio and a blog claiming to be a Deep Web blog but was actually just stories dedicated to spanking.
The New Yorker Strongbox is a secure transmission for writers and editors where I was given the code name: riddle yeah abreacts murgeoning. Through a given codename you can submit a message and/or file to the New Yorker's editorial staff. Mike Tigas, a news application developer for ProPublica, has a functioning blog in the Deep Web but has not posted anything new for some time, which was true for many other blogs as well.
Reddit user NekroTor is on a quest to reboot many of the Freedom Hosting sites that were taken down. On February 16th of this year, on his onion-routed blog, Nekrotown, he wrote, "2 days ago the BlackMarket Reloaded forum got seized. On the same day, the long-awaited Utopia Market was seized, which just goes to show that all the markets fucking suck these days except for Agora and TMP, and that you should just wait until BlackMarket Reloaded opens up again... eventually ...5 years later, no BMR."
NekroTor is correct in writing that most of the content right now on the Dark Web is not that great. On top of the fact that there used to be a wealth of sites for illegal black market interactions, there also used to be radio, books, blogs, political conversations, and even an Encyclopedia Dramatica that was a satirical culture-based wiki and is now laden with porn and pop-ups.
NekroTor created a new version of Hidden Wiki that has some functional links to audio and video streaming as well as some up-to-date forums for socializing and buying and selling. There are still a few image boards left, but the popular Onii-chan has the words "Well be back later" typed over spinning dildos.
After watching House of Cards, user TrelianScar turned to Reddit for guidance on how to navigate the Dark Web. TrelianScar is not alone. The Deep Web is making appearances in the media, in dinner conversations, and of course on Internet forums. One user jokingly writes to TrelianScar saying, "Wait till we send you an iPad. Then talk to the Dutch oil painting. Then await instructions," referencing HOC's unrealistic depiction of Deep Web interactions.
On a more serious note though, user Serbia_Strong writes, "What are you looking for first of all? Drugs? Guns? Assassins? Credit cards or counterfeit cash? I'd start your journey at the Hidden Wiki and then narrow in on your interests. I pretty much save every site I come across (you can't exactly just google them). Start at The Hidden Wiki and if you need any links just ask. Enjoy your descent into madness :)"
Another user, Dexter-Del-Rey explained a similar conundrum last week—he too is new to the Deep Web and wants some functional starter links. Redditor Ampernand writes back saying, "On the topic of torchan... here's a good piece on how it fell authored by the previous host. Currently torchan is hosted by someone that allows cp, gore etc, censors critics and doesn't give a flying fuck about the community. Effectively torchan has become exactly what it was trying to not be. Also, nntpchan is better." Ampernand links to NNTP-chan, which is a new forum replacing the image board Onii-chan.
New channels are popping up daily in the Deep Web. Currently, marketplace alternatives to Silk Road, Agora, and Pandora are the most frequented. Nonetheless, both TrelianScar and Dexter-Del-Rey were each respectively warned in their threads that the Dark Web is chock-full of scammers and is quite unlike its Hollywood depiction.
Interestingly, the Deep Web has lost much of its stigma over the past year and mainstream web services are experimenting with the platform even if they're not embracing it. In late October 2014, Facebook enabled Tor browser users to visit them anonymously, saying in a press release that "It’s important to us at Facebook to provide methods for people to use our site securely."
Additional reporting and updates by Neal Ungerleider.
[Image: Flickr user CarlosVanVegas]