Hilbert College Global Online Blog

What Is the Dark Web?

Written by: Hilbert College   •  Nov 27, 2023
Cybersecurity and law enforcement professionals

What Is the Dark Web?

In 2022, the U.S. Department of Justice seized Hydra Market, one of the world’s largest dark web marketplaces. An estimated 80% of dark web cryptocurrency transactions went through Hydra, funding criminal operations across the globe.

On Hydra, users could buy illegal narcotics, sell stolen financial data or steal the identities of innocent individuals. The site was also home to money laundering services that funded online criminal enterprises.

Taking down a massive international marketplace required a coordinated effort by law enforcement agencies. But Hydra represents just one marketplace on the dark web. Trained criminal justice professionals continue to battle the dark web’s greatest threats.

Dark Web Definition

What is the dark web? While the internet is a global network, not all parts of the internet are the same. There are essentially three main internet types. The surface web is open to everyone. Search engines index these websites, which anyone can visit. Social media websites, e-commerce sites, and other sites accessible through a web search are part of the surface web.

Then there is the “deep web.” The deep web requires special credentials or tools to access. The deep web includes sites that are behind a paywall or login pages. Online banking, personal email, and private networks are all part of the deep web.

Like the deep web, the dark web is not open to everyone. It’s a hidden part of the deep web that cannot be accessed by regular web browsers. Instead, the dark web is encrypted and anonymous.

The dark web houses many elements, and it is home to many cybercriminal operations. Because it’s anonymous, criminals can use the dark web to sell illegal goods and services. They can also communicate with other criminals and make anonymous payments using cryptocurrencies.

What Is the Deep Web?

The deep web includes all parts of the internet that aren’t publicly accessible. Businesses, governments, and individuals rely on the deep web. Private networks used by corporations to store customer data are part of the deep web, as are government websites that store personal identifying information and tax returns.

In fact, the deep web is much larger than the surface web––it represents 95% of the internet, while the surface web is just 5%. Newspaper articles and research papers behind a paywall are part of the deep web, as are personal email accounts. Any website that requires a login qualifies as the deep web.

But there’s an important difference between the deep web and the dark web. While neither are indexed by search engines, the dark web cannot be accessed by regular web browsers. Users need an anonymizing browser to reach the dark web.

Who Uses the Dark Web?

While the dark web provides cover for many criminals, it also has important legal uses. Encryption makes the dark web an important tool for sharing information. Journalists can use the dark web to communicate with anonymous sources. People living under oppressive regimes can access banned information using the dark web.

However, the anonymous nature of the dark web also makes it a haven for criminal activity. Cybercriminals can sell personal identifying information on the dark web. Narcotics operations use the dark web to sell drugs. And the dark web connects people with criminals of all kinds selling their services.

Dark Web Threats

What are the biggest threats on the dark web? Criminals rely on the dark web’s anonymity to commit cybercrimes.

According to law enforcement, the distribution of stolen data remains one of the largest threats. Personal identifying information, credit card numbers and business data are all sold on the dark web.

In addition to the threats from selling private data, the dark web is home to a cybercrime marketplace where criminals sell their services. Narcotics sales, weapon sales and human trafficking are also significant threats. The money laundering capabilities of the dark web fund criminal organizations. And finally, the dark web helps terrorists coordinate and hide.

Selling Private Data

Criminals can use the dark web to sell private data. For example, the dark web features sites devoted to selling payment card information or personal identifying information.

According to a report by cyber intelligence company Cybersixgill, over 4.5 million credit cards were for sale on the dark web in the first half of 2022. Although this represents a 63% decrease from the second half of 2021, data breaches continue to put millions of people’s personal information at risk each year, leaving individuals and businesses vulnerable.

Aiding in Cybercrimes

Cybercriminals see the dark web as the perfect place to sell their services. On the dark web, people can find “hackers for hire” or buy custom malware. That allows buyers to set up phishing scams or encrypt files to extort targets.

Known as “cybercrime-as-a-service,” cybercriminals sell ransomware packages on the dark web. These include custom-built cyberattacks and even subscription packages. Criminals without the technical ability to pull off cybercrimes can thus buy tools on the dark web to launch such attacks.

Illegal Narcotics

Criminals use the dark web to traffic in narcotics. For example, in the mid-2010s, the FBI determined drug dealers sold hundreds of kilos of illegal narcotics to buyers in less than three years.

In 2018, agents of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) reported a large increase in narcotics cases linked to the dark web. U.S. law enforcement has cracked down on dark web narcotics sites, yet the problem persists. Today, fentanyl sales remain a focus of federal law enforcement agencies.

How Does Law Enforcement Monitor the Dark Web?

Law enforcement plays a critical role in monitoring the dark web. In the U.S., federal agents coordinate to share information on cybercriminal organizations. Many dark web organizations reach into the real world, giving law enforcement another target point. For instance, package inspection can help law enforcement identify narcotics organizations that operate on the dark web.

The FBI also has tools to strip the dark web of its anonymity. By establishing nodes in dark web servers, the FBI can unveil the identities and locations of hidden pages. Tracking down cybercriminals requires specialized training and high-tech tools.

Expose Dark Web Crime With A Hilbert College Global Degree

The Justice Department shut down Hydra, but the threat of the dark web continues to grow. And law enforcement agencies need specialized investigators to bring cybercriminals to justice.

Investigating cybercrime requires both criminal justice and technology training. The online Master of Science in Criminal Justice Administration program at Hilbert College Global prepares graduates for leadership roles in law enforcement.

Discover how the program can launch your criminal justice career. Learn today how to enroll.

Recommended Readings

How to Start a Career in Cybersecurity

Phishing Prevention Tips for Older Adults

What Can You Do With a Criminal Justice Degree?


Bank of Scotland, “Dark Web Threats – And What To Do About Them”

Bankless Times, “Dark Web Statistics to Demystify This Layer of the Web”

Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, The Dark Web and Cyber Crime

Cybersixgill, Underground Financial Fraud H1 2022

FBI.gov, Operator of Silk Road 2.0 Website Charged in Manhattan Federal Court

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

National Institute of Justice, “Taking on the Dark Web: Law Enforcement Experts ID Investigative Needs”

U.S. Department of Justice, “Justice Department Investigation Leads to Shutdown of Largest Online Darknet Marketplace”

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