Credit: Illustration by Slug Signorino

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How would I gain access to the deep Web (dark Web)? Supposedly it’s a site that promotes illegal activities. I understand you can hire serial killers, assassins, and things of that sort. It’s said you have to go through a series of proxies to gain access. —Donta

This is a confused individual, I said to my assistant Una. Not many people are looking to hire serial killers.

Confused individuals are the best job security we have, Una replied. And to be fair, this is a subject that would confuse anyone. First, I can tell you: The deep Web and the dark Web are two different things.

The meanings have evolved, but the deep Web is anything theoretically accessible via the Internet whose existence can’t be detected by search engines. In the old days, that meant anything in a database. Now, Google spiders crawling the Web for searchable content can dig into databases, but there are limits to how far they can go.

Beyond this frontier lies the deep Web. Many believe it accounts for the vast majority of what’s out there. Google for example knows of more than a trillion Web addresses but has only indexed about 40 billion of them. As of 2011 Google researchers estimated there were more than a billion data repositories on the Internet, ranging from simple HTML tables to giant corporate servers like Early speculation was that 400 to 550 times the amount of “surface data” existed in the deep Web, and nowadays that may be an underestimate.

Most of what we’re talking about, Una continued, is corporate data archives and is excruciatingly boring. But not all. There are also some fascinating if decidedly unsavory bits. That’s the dark Web.

The dark Web is a collection of sites and technologies that don’t just hide data but conceal attempts to access it. For example, if I were operating a website for assassins, I’d want not merely to keep my roster of contract killers safe from accidental discovery, I’d also want it to be possible for potential clients to reach me and my site without their efforts being detectable. That’s what the dark Web lets them do.

Accessing the dark Web requires special software, special passwords, or both. The worst-kept secret of the dark Web is Tor, originally an acronym for “The Onion Router.” Building on research originally carried out by the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, the Tor Project became a community effort to design a way for anyone to communicate online without their location or identity being traceable. Most agree the Tor Project was created to ensure free expression without fear of government snooping and interference. The reality is when you get a bunch of people together and give them complete anonymity and freedom from accountability, often it’s the worst impulses that dominate, not the best.

Thus on the dark Web you find the doings of the anarchist hacktivists of Anonymous and the folks behind Wikileaks; Islamic jihadist message boards; stolen credit card numbers for sale; drugs of every description; child pornography; prostitute directories; contact info for purported assassins; and mundane wares such as pirated music and movies.

One of the biggest retail commerce sites on the dark Web, Silk Road, is estimated to move $22 million in drugs annually. AK-47s, C4 explosives, fake driver’s licenses, gold bars—if you can imagine it, someone is probably selling it. Fulfillment can be a pain, and the authorities have started watching these sites and intercepting drug shipments­—the anonymity of the dark Web means you can’t tell if the party looking for frozen human pineal glands is a mere ghoul or a state DEA agent.

The currency of choice on the Tor network is the bitcoin, a virtual monetary unit with no central bank behind it. As of last week it had a market capitalization of more than $220 million.

Anyone can access Tor by downloading the software for free, although once you get set up there’s still a learning curve, and finding the most reptilian pleasures frequently requires some investigation or word passed through the grapevine.

Once when I was young and foolish, Una went on, a dark Web link led me to some disturbed (and disturbing) people who wanted to interview me online about how to generate electricity during the zombie apocalypse, which they felt was imminent. Over the next several months I browsed around some of the darker dark sites with no particular aim in mind—I wasn’t really in the market for genuine Ebola virus (“Amaze your friends”) or outcall intersex prostitutes, and my hacking days, such as they were, were even then long behind me.

Even so, the experience was both thrilling and scary, a reminder that even in this era of ubiquitous e-commerce, the Wild West side of the Internet is only a few mouse clicks away. —Cecil Adams

Have something you need to get straight? Take it up with Cecil at