The many faces of the darknet

Where do criminals sell drugs while politically persecuted people plead for their rights? The darknet is an anonymous area on the internet that is not openly visible and is accessible only through a special network. It has a bad reputation, but it holds hope for all those who yearn for privacy or are not free to express their opinions freely.

Myths and legends: What is the darknet and what makes it so special?

The myths

Hidden from the eyes of the ordinary Internet community, the darknet is a place steeped in myths and legends. Secret societies who decide on access to certain areas. Celebrities who keep their networks secretly. Freedom fighters organizing themselves there. Even traditional mafia clans are now supposed to run a large part of their business on the darknet. But to understand what makes the darknet so special, you first have to deal with how it works.

The three levels of the internet

There are three levels on the internet: The clear web, deep web and darknet. The visible area of the internet is called the clear web. It can be found via the search engines and is openly accessible, like this page. One level behind this is the deep web. This part is restricted, partly encrypted and/or for the most part not found by search engines. Closed member areas or digital bank accounts are just a few examples of the deep web. The last level is the darknet. This area is only accessible on the so-called Tor network. Anyone can use this network with the proper browser extension. Connection data is encrypted several times and anonymized. The necessary software can be downloaded freely from the internet. Certain areas can only be accessed by invitation and password.

What does the darknet look like?

On the surface, the darknet looks very similar to the open parts of the internet (see screenshot). There are various pages, forums, online marketplaces, communication services and even search engines. Facebook has even been offering a version on the Tor network (https://facebookcorewwi.onion/) since 2014. In the early 2000s, work on the Tor network, as we know it, began in the US. It evolved in parallel with the clear web and has increasingly adapted to the habits of "normal" Internet users. Its size has grown enormously. However, many parts can only be reached by invitation and with the correct access information. For this, the user must have the right contacts that he either has made in the real world or whose trust he has earned on the internet. People roaming the darknet could not be more diverse.

Crime and freedom fight: Who uses the darknet?

The darknet has an average of around 250,000 users in Germany. However, the estimates of user numbers for the Tor network vary greatly. At the beginning of this year, there were even mentions of 1.5 million users in Germany. According to Tor statistics, the network currently has around 2.5 million users worldwide.


Around 57% of all Tor websites provide illegal content, according to a 2016 study by Daniel Moore and Thomas Rid. Drug dealers, arms dealers, contract killers, human traffickers, pedophiles, hackers and other criminals use the net to offer their goods or services. You can buy everything that the illegal market offers on the darknet: Rare wild animals, account information, cyber attacks or other people’s records. Working anonymously, they can communicate undetected with their customers and escape prosecution.

Seekers of protection

But the Darknet also provides a safe haven for those who fear persecution. Dissidents, whistleblowers, homosexuals... Those who are persecuted in their country for their political, religious or sexual convictions can openly express their opinions, share and organize with like-minded people. For example, during the Arab Spring, activists in countries like Tunisia, Egypt or Morocco organized their demonstrations on the Darknet.

Careful ones

In Zeiten in denen Firmen wie Google und Facebook viele unserer Daten sammeln, zieht es auch immer mehr Personen ins Darknet, denen der Schutz ihrer Privatsphäre wichtig ist. Die Daten werden ausgewertet, um individuelle Werbung anzubieten und das Nutzerverhalten besser zu verstehen. Einigen Personen widerstrebt allein schon das Sammeln Ihrer Daten per se, anderen vor allem die kommerzielle Nutzung. Einige nutzen das Darknet vor allem wegen der verschlüsselten Datenübertragung.

Curious ones

Of course, there are many onlookers on the darknet. They want to see if they can succeed in entering the darknet. Others want to explore what goods and services are offered there and what their prices are. But even those who only want to look around in the darknet can make themselves punishable. Anyone who unintentionally encounters child pornography is already subject to prosecution from that, alone. All the information eventually ends up in the caches of the devices used and the possession of child pornography is an offense.

What are the dangers of using the Tor network?

Using the Tor network is not without dangers. In addition to the risk of inadvertently reaching out to sites that offer illegal content and thus making themselves open to prosecution, cyber criminals can also attack you there. The network does not offer any special protection against cyber attacks, as is often assumed. In addition, there is a rumor that many servers on the network are in the hands of secret services. According to the Federal Agency for Civic Education, much of the funding for the TOR project is still provided by "research funds from the US government."




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