The dark web has gained notoriety for being a haven for illicit marketplaces, illegal pornography, and traffickers. As a result, accessing specific sites and content can get you into legal trouble even if you are only conducting dark web research.
In this article, you will learn how to conduct dark web research within the bounds of the law.
Is the Dark Web Truly Anonymous?
The dark web is a hidden section of the deep web that can only be accessed through an anonymized network. You have to use specialized browsers such as Tor, I2P which enable you to surf the dark web anonymously. The browsers route data being sent from your computer through a series of network relays, building up layers of encryption. In theory, this means your browsing activity on the dark web is invisible to prying eyes.
However, this does not mean browsers like Tor are fully anonymous. Over the years, law enforcement has become adept at unmasking nefarious activity in the dark web. Through a combination of cyber enforcement tools, and surveillance, law enforcement has penetrated illegal dark web markets.
Normally, in such cases, authorities make little effort into separating perpetrators and innocuous visitors. For dark web researchers, this state of affairs makes it difficult to browse dark web markets and forums for informational purposes, and still remain anonymous in the eyes of the law.
How to Research the Dark Web Safely
Use a VPN
Internet service providers and sites can detect Tor being used since the node IP’s are visible to everyone. While your identity cannot be traced from the node IPs, ISP’s can determine that you are using Tor. This alone can draw their attention and lead them to take action, including alerting law enforcement about ‘suspicious’ online activity.
Therefore, you are advised to use a Virtual Private Network (VPN) if you want to use Tor privately. The VPN will successfully hide your Tor node connection from ISP’s through an encrypted tunnel to a VPN server.
Take Precautions to Remain Anonymous
As a researcher, you can safely browse dark web sites and hidden wikis. But if you plan to go further, you need to safeguard your identity.
To make any purchases, use privacy-focused cryptocurrencies like XMR, or set up an anonymous bitcoin wallet.
Verify Your .onion URLs
It is important to ensure your .onion URLs are typed correctly. Onion URLs generally comprise of a string of random numbers and letters. Additionally, once you are sure of the URL, save it using encryption so that Tor will not cache it for later.
Also, be very careful when using publicly posted .onion URLs. A number of dark web sites and marketplaces act as honeypots for law enforcement.
URLs posted on the clearnet are often malicious, and can leave you open to scams, phishing sites and malware. Considering there is very little use of HTTPS on the dark net, verifying whether a site is authentic using a SSL certificate is not practical.
Don’t Be Careless
While Tor maybe a wonderful too for anonymous browsing it will be ineffective if you are careless, and end up making silly mistakes. Even all your safety precautions are worth nothing if you use a regular site like Reddit, tell everyone how smart you are, and leave metadata on your photos. In this scenario, you may end up finding out the hard way that enforcement agents use Reddit too.
Ultimately, anonymity and common sense are paramount for those browsing the dark web. The government and internet service providers may not be able to view your activity on the dark web, but they most likely know you are using the Tor network. This alone can be used as a probable cause to investigate you as was denoted by a recent judgment in the US Supreme court, allowing enforcement agents to search and seize any computer on the basis of suspicion only. Therefore, deploy all safety precautions while browsing the dark web.
Additionally, make sure to avoid platforms that publish illegal content. The simple act of viewing such sites is breaking the law. If your work as a dark web researcher does involve researching illegal platforms, get legal advice on how to handle this situation. That way you can ensure that you don’t end up on the wrong side of the law by accident.