The dark net has long been seen as a safe haven for the internet’s cyber criminals, offering them an unrestricted, unmonitored, and anonymous space to take part in illegal activities. But as the demands for privacy and security online become more prevalent, more users – and not just those with something to hide – will start to migrate to the mysterious world of the dark net.

The dark net is, on the whole, an innocent service – it is defined, simply, as parts of the World Wide Web not indexed by standard search engines. Yet hiding in the shadows are sites purposely designed to be invisible, only accessible when using a specific browser – the onion router (TOR).

The TOR browser relays internet traffic thousands of times over, making users untraceable, and keeping them anonymous. This combination of privacy for both users and websites has led to the rise of the dark net, where anything is possible. TOR and its “hidden services” section hosts approximately 20,000-30,000 dark net sites, from drug markets to crypto anarchist forums and everything in-between. Due to the functionality of TOR, these sites are incredibly difficult to shut down.

Additionally, because of the nature of TOR no one really knows how many dark net users there are. When the drug marketplace Silk Road was shut down in 2013 it had over 950,000 registered accounts (although many were assumed to be duplicates – the estimated UU count was 140,000 -150,000). Estimates suggest there are around 2m daily users, and that this number is growing rapidly, but it’s not all drug dealers and whistle-blowers. In fact, only 5% of TOR traffic is to access the dark net, whilst the remaining 95% is to the surface web.

In April this year, Facebook announced that 1m people a month now use TOR to access, or their onion site, an increase of 90% from June 2015. This move, according to Facebook, was to satisfy the demand for safety, security and privacy for users.

As more mainstream sites begin to take residence in the dark net, awareness will increase, and the user base will follow. It’s clear that the anonymity and security that TOR enables is appealing to mainstream internet users, many of whom are there to simply browse the internet with the sense of security –in the knowledge that their data and browsing history are safe from anyone that may be watching.

Several brands have already started to take note of the dark net’s emergence into the mainstream. Adidas launched its first ‘dark social’ campaign using messaging services to create a more personal brand, and O2 have started to track activity on dark social. Although the dark net is not yet an advertiser friendly environment, we should be learning from its need for innovation to improve surface web services and cater for consumers’ desires for a more secure digital experience.

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