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explainer

Shot of a laptop computer as the screen glows in the darknessPhotodisc

The hackers behind the Ashley Madison security breach have apparently made good on their promise to expose the users of the online cheating site. The Impact Team, as the hackers collectively refer to themselves, posted the information on the dark web, a section of the Web inaccessible for the majority of Internet users, and certainly mysterious.

What is the dark web?

The Internet has two layers, the surface web and the deep web. The surface web is the vast amount of information accessible through search engines and links that connect pages together. The deep web is the even vaster amount of information that, for various reasons, isn't easily indexed by search engines or linked to, making the information largely inaccessible to regular Web users. The dark web is a small portion of the deep web that has been intentionally hidden and made inaccessible. Nevertheless, it's important to understand "that the dark web runs on the exact same infrastructure as the normal web – it is simply explored in a different way, along different protocols," said John Proctor, vice-president of global cybersecurity at CGI.

Who uses the dark web?

The dark web is special because of its provision for anonymity. "The only way to access it is through browsers that let you surf and host content anonymously," said Eric Jardine, a global security research fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation. Users of the dark web all have reasons to conceal their identity, whether it's law-enforcement officials or journalists who use the dark web to communicate with sources, or criminals who take advantage of the obscurity to engage in illegal activities. "It has dual purposes," said Mr. Jardine. "In liberal democratic countries like ours, it tends to conceal criminal activity, but in highly repressive regimes, it could be for citizens and activists."

What's on the dark web?

The inclination may be to believe that the dark web is nefarious in nature – the name hardly helps – but just as the dark web has good and bad users, it can host good and bad content. Typically though, the information is highly targeted because the dark web has such specific and limited types of users. "If you have data you want to exploit, you go on the dark web to find the talented people who know how to exploit it, you've made it available in their environment, " said Mr. Proctor. "The information on the dark web is for people who know how to dig and forage and use it, for good or bad."

How do you access the dark web?

The dark web is accessed only through special browsers, and by far the most popular is TOR, which stands for The Onion Router and can be downloaded like any regular browser. The TOR homepage claims that it is a network that helps users "defend against traffic analysis, a form of network surveillance that threatens personal freedom and privacy, confidential business activities and relationships, and state security." Interestingly enough, TOR was first created by the U.S. Navy for its intelligence agents. Directories exist to help users navigate the dark web, such as thehiddenwiki.org. A cursory glance shows sites for "Unfriendlysolution – legit hitman service" and "US fake ID store."

Dark web in the news

The Ashley Madison hack isn't the first time the dark web has made it into the news. Perhaps the most high-profile story to come out of the dark web is the take down of online black market Silk Road, the illegal drug marketplace operating on the dark web for two years before the FBI shut down the website in 2013 and arrested site founder Ross Ulbricht, who has been sentenced to life in prison. A Silk Road 2.0 sprang up briefly, run by previous site administrators, before that was also taken down in 2014. The dark web has been associated with the infamous WikiLeaks, the classified media site, as well as bitcoins, said to be the currency of the dark web.

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