Photo illustration of our increasingly digital world (Getty Images)
Photo illustration of our increasingly digital world (Getty Images)
Photo illustration of our increasingly digital world (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)


Words like the dark net, the deep web, encryption, Tor, and other technospeak are thrown around a lot these days. Often misappropriated or used confusingly, these terms describe aspects of the internet that affect our daily lives in far-reaching and unseen ways, from spying on foreign governments to trafficking drugs. For reasons detailed below, it’s becoming increasingly important to know what you’re dealing with.

If you’re one of the 73 percent of Americans who go online at least once a day, it’s highly unlikely that you’re skimming more than just the surface. What you’re using right now, known as the “surface net,” is just the tip of the iceberg. The internet is basically comprised of two layers of networks: This one, and a larger, more nebulous one encompassing what’s known as the “deep web” and “dark net.” This is a largely unmonitored world where internet users are able to engage in a criminal activities to a higher degree than they could offline. Needless to say, the dark net and deep web are just as important as the surface net, if not more. Let’s break down their differences.

Sometimes what's below the surface can be unexpected (Getty Images)
The surface net is just a small part of what comprises the entire Internet (Getty Images)


Surface Net

If you’re reading this article on RealClearLife, chances are the only internet you’ve accessed is the surface net. Described in layman’s terms as “anything you can find with a Google search,” the surface net is readily available to the public. Websites that exist on the surface net are indexed and cataloged by search engines for users to access more easily.


Deep Web

In general, the deep web is anything not on the surface net. It contains a host of innocuous and humdrum materials, from a private corporation’s personnel files to academic articles. The deep web is considered “deep,” because those sites are not indexed and therefore not accessible by search engines. It’s important to note that much of the deep web is used for legitimate purposes. For example, RealClearLife stores its future articles there.


Dark Net

A nebulous part of the deep web, the dark net is comprised of users that cloak their identity with anonymizing software and encryption techniques, like a special browser called Tor (used by 2.5 million people daily). Originally created by the U.S. military to protect government communications in the 1990s, Tor has since been weaponized by those capitalizing on its cloaking mechanism. The dark net is where the internet’s most nefarious users hide, utilizing secret websites to buy and sell things like drugs, illegal weapons, prostitutes, and assassinations. Learn more about the dark net by listening to the short NPR audio story below.


Selling information is the most lucrative and dangerous trade in this subterranean digital black market. To better understand the trend and its players, Vanity Fair correspondent William Langewiesche caught up with a hacker who made the dark net his playground before turning over a new leaf. Only identified by Langewiesche as “Opsec,” the former cybercriminal now works as a “white hat hacker,” a computer security expert hired to find vulnerabilities and fix them. Here’s Langewiesche on his source:

“Opsec lives in a hall of mirrors. He understands that webspace and meatspace, though connected, remain largely distinct. Given sufficient motivation and time, Opsec can break into almost any secure network without setting off alarms. Breaking in used to thrill him, because once inside he could roam as he liked, but success comes too easily now: with such an attack, he has to find only a single way in. By contrast, defense presents the challenge of out-thinking every aggressor. This appeals to him, and he works now on the defending side. Usually, this means protecting company networks from criminal attacks, or reacting to attacks after damage has been done. Opsec does not do the routine stuff. He is the man for the serious cases. He has seen some big ones. But even he was taken aback when, late last year, he stumbled upon a hack—a sliver of alien software on American shores—which suggested that preparations were being made for a cyber-attack of unprecedented scale.”

Learn more about the cyber attack plot that Opsec uncovered—and many others like it—in the Vanity Fair article here. For more background information on the dark net, watch the TED talk below. Learn more about how to safely access the deep web and dark net here on