Deep web vs. dark web: What’s the difference?

Couple looking at phone researching deep web threats.

What’s the difference between the deep web vs. the dark web? Turn to this overview to learn how they both work and for tips for those surfing the deep web and dark web.

The internet has many layers to it. You might think of the web as a glacier floating in the middle of the Arctic. There’s the surface web that most of us use or see every day, the deep web nestled right below, and then the dark web buried even farther down.

Deep web and dark web sites can have bad reputations, but that’s partially because they’re surrounded by so much mystery, leading to confusion and misinformation. In fact, these sites make up around 96% of the internet and some even provide cybersecurity measures to improve your online privacy.

For more perspective, dive into our breakdown of the deep web vs. the dark web, including the purpose of each and how they differ from one another. You’ll also find best practices for deep web and dark web browsing, as well as answers to frequently asked questions about surfing deep and dark web websites.

What is the deep web?

surface deep dark web

The name might sound nefarious, but there’s really nothing sinister about the deep web.

Instead, the deep web describes all web pages hidden from the search engines we use every day. Website owners hide their sites to protect information not meant for public viewing, like email and banking accounts, private social media pages, and electronic health records. Imagine if someone were able to Google your name and have your email account and/or health records pop up instantly. Thanks to the deep web, this doesn’t happen.

The deep web works by requiring you to have a specific password or link that will give you access to the private site you’re trying to enter. This way, prying eyes will run into trouble trying to access your personal information.

Think of your online bank account. To access it, you must first enter a password and username. This keeps others from logging onto your online savings or checking accounts.

Some mainstream sites are only accessible via the deep web because of how they customize each page to the user. Streaming platforms are a great example of this, requiring you to enter your login credentials immediately before you can continue to watch your favorite TV shows and movies.

What is the dark web?

The dark web is a different experience. It is a more guarded subspace of the deep web, hosting encrypted websites for its users. However, these sites are only accessible through certain web browsers. Some people use this encrypted space to help protect their identity and online privacy, but other hackers like to use these features to carry out illegal activities. It is these shady dealings that give the dark web its seedy, dangerous reputation.

Here are some crimes you might encounter while navigating the dark web:

Of course, the dark web isn’t only used for criminal purposes. Some people log onto it to hide their online activity from governments, especially those that censor the internet or have a history of jailing dissidents. Journalists might use the dark web to communicate with confidential sources.

With the help of the Tor Project and other similar dark web browsers, people can surf the dark web and communicate with others without having their IP address, search history, cache, or cookies tracked. These are unique search engines designed specifically for accessing the dark web. And contrary to what you may think, the dark web offers several sites that aren’t connected with illegal activity.

What is the difference between the dark web and the deep web?

deep vs dark web

Now that you know what the deep and dark web are, seeing their differences may be a bit easier. But just to make sure you have a clear picture, we’ve outlined them for you below.

What are uses of the deep web vs. the dark web?

People use the deep web and dark web for different reasons.

Why people use the deep web:

  • Protect online accounts and personal information
  • Safeguard databases
  • Interact on social media
  • Access educational courses
  • Use subscriptions services

Why people use the dark web:

  • Perform illegal activities
  • Conduct military/police investigations
  • Hold political protests
  • Surf the internet anonymously

People often use the dark web to keep their online activity anonymous. And this increased protection is what can motivate cybercriminals to use the platform for illegal activity.

What are the pros of the deep web vs. the dark web?

Like everything connected to the online world, both the deep web and the dark web have their pluses and minuses.

Pros of the deep web:

  • Enhanced privacy
  • Secure website connections
  • Password-and/or link-protected information

Pros of the dark web:

  • No censorship
  • Platform for political activism
  • Anonymous browsing

What are the cons of the deep web vs. dark web?

There are also downsides to surfing the deep web and dark web.

The deep web can help protect personal information, but that doesn’t mean that clever hackers can’t still crack the sits on it. Cybercriminals often use tactics like credential stuffing and password spraying to obtain the details they need to steal and expose your data.

And, yes, the dark web offers anonymous browsing not available on the deep web or surface web, but there are significant threats you might encounter as you browse. Hackers use the dark web for illegal activities that could implicate you and expose your information if you stumble across the wrong site.

You might also have questions about accessing the dark web, as well as questions about safety.

How can I access the dark web?

The dark web might be hidden to most web browsers, but that doesn't mean it's impossible to reach. In fact, getting to the dark web isn't even all the difficult. You just have to download a browser built to access this part of the web, most likely the Tor browser.

The Tor browser — which stands for The Onion Routing — will keep your online activity anonymous and let you visit websites on the dark web. The challenge, though, is that you must know the website addresses you want to visit. The dark web doesn't have an index or ranking system, which means you can't search for sites like you would with Google or other search engines. The only way to reach sites on the dark web is to type them directly into your browser.

You can find dark web search engines, with one of the most popular being the Uncensored Hidden Wiki. Just be careful: Many of these search engines might include websites that deal in illegal activity.

How can I access the deep and dark web safely?

If you want to visit the deep web — even if it’s just to check out your dental bill or the balance in your online bank account —equip your device with trusted security software and keep it up to date.

And if you are visiting deep web sites such as your online credit card portal, use a virtual private network, or VPN. A VPN hides your IP address from snoops and also encrypts your information while online. This keeps government bodies, advertisers and hackers from reading the messages you send and websites you visit while online. Hackers and others, then, won’t be able to decipher your password when you log into your online bank account.

Here are a few tips and tools to help stay safe when using Tor and other browsers. There’s a lot more to consider, but this should give you an idea of some of the issues — good and bad — to consider.

  • Tor is known for providing online anonymity, so it can be effective for sharing sensitive information with family or reporting corruption or abuse.
  • Keep Tor and Tor applications updated. Make sure your device’s operating system is also up to date.
  • Don’t use your regular email on websites when using Tor. While Tor is designed with anonymity in mind, providing your regular email address could expose your identity.
  • The presence of illegal activity calls into question the “character” of some dark web denizens. That’s why it’s important to take care to help protect your personal information and identity.

Visiting the dark web, though, is different than accessing the deep web. In fact, poking around on the dark web is where people can get themselves into trouble. Unlike the deep web, which contains important and useful information, the dark web is riddled with illegal and unconscionable activity.

Because Tor servers keep users and publishers completely anonymous, there’s no way to regulate or control the content, products, and services being offered inside the dark web. There’s also no way to trace communications or keep financial tabs on responsible parties because all payments are made and received using Bitcoin, a digital currency that operates independently of a central bank.

That doesn’t mean that only criminals visit the dark web. There are publications on the dark web whose editors and founders believe it’s the only way to obtain and sustain a truly free press.

Before you visit the dark web, educate yourself on its dangers. Install and run strong, trusted security software on your computer and devices to help ensure the privacy and security of your data.

What are best practices for deep and dark web browsing?

how to browse deep and dark webs safely

If you do choose to browse the deep and dark web, here are a few best practices to keep in mind to help keep your devices and information secure:

  • Use Tor Browser
  • Never share personal information and/or passwords
  • Steer clear of illegal websites
  • Use a VPN
  • Avoid downloading files
  • Cover or disconnect your webcam
  • Don’t enter your actual email address
  • Download antivirus software

Should I visit the deep and dark web?

You probably visit the deep web regularly already. If you checked the balance in your online checking account or studied your most recent credit card statement online, you’ve been on the deep web. You use the deep web, too, when you sign into Netflix, Amazon Prime, or any other streaming video service to watch movies.

The dark web? That’s a different matter. You might use the dark web if you live in a country in which the government censors or spies on online activity. By using the Tor browser to access the dark web, you can visit sites that your government might prefer you not.

You might use the dark web if you are a dissident and are trying to communicate with others without your government tracking your message. Maybe you’re a journalist and you are communicating with sources who want to keep their identities private. The dark web can help.

Some medical professionals even offer advice on sensitive health issues through dark web sites. This gives people the chance to ask questions about potentially embarrassing health issues – such as drug addiction – and feel comfortable that no one will be spying on their messages.

Just be careful when you’re on the dark web. This section of the internet is home to illegal drugs, illegal firearms sales and child pornography. It’s also a place for hackers o sell the personal and financial information of victims, such as their Social Security numbers and credit card numbers. Don’t be tempted to do anything illegal here. It could come back to haunt you.

If you do choose to browse the deep and dark web, here are a few best practices to keep in mind to help keep your devices and information secure:

Deep web vs dark web FAQs

Have more questions regarding the deep web vs. the dark web? We have answers.

Who made the dark web?

The U.S. government created the dark web in the mid-1990s to allow spies to exchange confidential data anonymously.

Is it illegal to access the deep web or the dark web?

No, it is not illegal to access either the deep web or dark web.

What are the main dangers of the dark web?

There are a number of dangers present on the dark web from child pornography and drug trafficking to illegal arms dealings and cryptocurrency scams.

What is Tor Project?

The Tor Browser is an encrypted network used for surfing the dark web. The level of encryption provides anonymous internet browsing for all users.

Can Tor be traced?

The encrypted network the Tor Browser uses to access the dark web is very hard to trace.

What happens if you go on the dark web?

Those using the dark web disconnect from the public servers used for everyday online browsing and connect to a dark web browser that provides increased privacy and security.

Cyber threats have evolved, and so have we.

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Dan Rafter
  • Dan Rafter
  • Freelance writer
Dan Rafter is a freelance writer who covers tech, finance, and real estate. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, and Fox Business.

Editorial note: Our articles provide educational information for you. Our offerings may not cover or protect against every type of crime, fraud, or threat we write about. Our goal is to increase awareness about Cyber Safety. Please review complete Terms during enrollment or setup. Remember that no one can prevent all identity theft or cybercrime, and that LifeLock does not monitor all transactions at all businesses. The Norton and LifeLock brands are part of Gen Digital Inc. 


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