Understanding the Dark Web: The Role of Cyber Security

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Set of hands typing on keyboard in dark room.

The dark web brings to mind images of malicious agents sneaking around online in search of illegal drugs, personal information and the newest ransomware software. Its origins, however, lie with the U.S. government as a means for sharing sensitive information.

The term “deep web” refers to sites and services that are not indexed by search engines. For example, sites that end in “.onion” can only be accessed anonymously and their web URL must be known in advance. The dark web is a subset of deep websites that cannot be accessed using a regular internet browser, requiring encryption or specialty software.

Cyber criminals share such sites with each other and can limit or prevent unknown persons reaching their site accidentally via a Google search.

Those who hold an online cyber security master’s degree understand the dark web as an enormous source of hacking knowledge and software. Studying hacking forums on the deep web equips professional penetration testers, security analysts and software developers with the cyber security information they need to perform their responsibilities.

What Is the Dark Web?

An exploration of what the dark web is can begin by understanding its origins. Developed to help anonymize government intelligence communications, the dark web takes advantage of network routing capabilities designed initially to protect intelligence data online via the use of special equipment and programs. A Tor Browser or an Invisible Internet Protocol (I2P) setup must be configured to allow anonymous online activity for dark websites to be reachable.

“Tor, which stands for ‘onion router’ or ‘onion routing,’ is designed primarily to keep users anonymous,” the security software company Radware explains in “Understanding the Darknet and Its Impact on Cyber Security” in Security Boulevard.

“Just like the layers of an onion, data is stored within multiple layers of encryption. Each layer reveals the next relay until the final layer sends the data to its destination. Information is sent bidirectionally, so data is being sent back and forth via the same tunnel. On any given day, over 1 million users are active on the Tor network.”

The Dark Web and Cryptocurrency

Following the advent of decentralized cryptocurrencies in 2009, dark web users found that they could exchange money for goods and services in a quasi-anonymous way.

Silk Road was perhaps the most notorious dark web black marketplace. Users shopped for anything from drugs to guns, hitman services, and hacked computer programs and accounts. The administrators of the marketplace held bitcoin (or other cryptocurrency) payments in escrow until the buyer received the item or service purchased.

Although law enforcement eventually shut down Silk Road, marketplaces just like it continue to thrive on the dark web. And unlike Silk Road, newer marketplaces are decentralized and better hidden. Because dark web activity bounces signals off nodes or relay sites located in multiple nations all over the globe, investigations are costly and time consuming.

Dark Web Services

The dark web also presents the option of paying for sensitive data and hacking services instead of malware and virus packages that require the buyer to have a higher level of expertise. Security writer Matias Porolli lists these services in “Cybercrime Black Markets: Dark Web Services and Their Prices” on WeLiveSecurity:

  • Ransomware as a service — Preconfigured ransomware sold on a monthly or annual basis
  • Selling access to servers — Remote desktop protocol (RDP) credentials sold per server through a customizable search service
  • Renting infrastructure — Computing resources leased for botnets and denial-of-service attacks that require massive processing power
  • Selling PayPal and credit card accounts — Account access credentials sold to cyber criminals for a fraction of the available balance on each account

Despite the nefarious activities made possible by the dark web, it is not all bad. In “The Truth about the Dark Web” for the International Monetary Fund, international affairs authorities Aditi Kumar and Eric Rosenbach write, “For individuals living under oppressive regimes that block large parts of the internet or punish political dissent, the dark web is a lifeline that provides access to information and protection from persecution. In freer societies, it can be a critical whistleblowing and communication tool that shields people from retribution or judgment in the workplace or community.”

How Cyber Security Professionals Navigate the Dark Web

For cyber security personnel, especially those who deal directly with protecting sensitive systems against cyber attacks, understanding the dark web can help them study the ways of the enemy, so to speak.

Dark web cyber threat intelligence mining is the process by which the more inaccessible corners of the internet are scoured for actionable intelligence to strengthen cyber security. In SecurityIntelligence’s “7 Ways to Identify Darknet Cyber Security Risks,” tech writer Jasmine Henry points out that dark web-based emerging threats and vulnerabilities can be analyzed to protect against threats before they can strike.

Invaluable cyber threat information can be gleaned from the dark web in several ways. AI algorithms can scour the onion sites in search of usable data while skilled cyber security researchers inject themselves into the realm of hackers and learn from their opponents’ dark web activities.

Those who work in the cyber security industry today are entering a field where lifelong learning practices are valuable. Cyber criminals move fast and innovate new hacks daily. Through the dark web, however, cyber security professionals can research their ways and learn how to counter their moves before they can launch their attack.

Build Your Expertise in the Latest Cyber Security Trends

Choosing the right online cyber security master’s program is not a decision to take lightly. The best programs offer courses that keep current with today’s cyber security issues and concerns.

The University of North Dakota’s online Master of Science in Cyber Security degree program offers this type of forward-thinking preparation for leadership roles in cyber security. UND’s online program was ranked No. 2 in the 15 Best Online Cyber Security Degrees in 2021 by Best Value Schools. Students complete three certificate tracks to earn their master’s degree, including the mandatory Cyber Security Analyst track as well as two of the following: Ethical Hacking, Computer Forensics or Secure Networks.

Explore UND’s online Master of Science in Cyber Security program and discover how it can help you launch a new career or advance in your current path.

Recommended Readings

5 Blockchain Security Issues & Tips for Solving Them

5 Powerful Cryptography Tools for Cyber Security Professionals

What Is Vulnerability Analysis? Exploring an Important Cyber Security Concept


Alexandria, “How Are the Silk Road, the Dark Web and Bitcoin Connected?”

Enterprising Investor, “Cryptocurrencies: The Rise of Decentralized Money”

International Monetary Fund, “The Truth About the Dark Web”

Security Boulevard, “Understanding the Darknet and Its Impact on Cybersecurity”

Security Intelligence, “7 Ways to Identify Darknet Cybersecurity Risks”

VPNOverview.com, “The Dark Web: What Is It Exactly, and What Can You Find There?”

WeLiveSecurity, “Cybercrime Black Markets: Dark Web Services and Their Prices”