Digital Underground: A Deep Dive into the History of the Dark Web

Written by: Nearchos Nearchou



Time to read 4 min

The Dark Web has a longer history than one may imagine, even though it appears to be a new millennium invention. The construction of the "Advanced Research Projects Agency Network" in the 1960s marked the beginning of the concept of an anonymous communications network (ARPANET). The Dark Web later evolved from that early experimental network, which would not be known to regular Internet users. Although ARPANET was initially developed for the academic community, it immediately emerged as a useful resource for the American armed forces. The US Army's primary goal in using the network was to defend the nation against cyberattacks from other governments and countries.


The term “Darknet” was introduced in the 1970s to designate networks isolated from ARPANET (that period’s Internet). In simple words, a Darknet is a set of interconnected networks wherein all network traffic is hidden and highly secure. Thus, anyone can browse a Darknet, leaving little to no traces. For some people, Darknets are a means to achieve ultimate online anonymity, while for others, these networks are no more than tools to express their criminogenic desires. Darknets are being used for various reasons, such as:

  • Ensure privacy and freedom of expression.

  • Make it easier to engage in criminal activities, for example, human trafficking, fraud, drug distribution, contract killings, modern slavery, etc.

  • File sharing (personal files, child pornography, confidential information, illegal software, and others).

  • Protect dissidents from political reprisal.

  • Trade of illegal goods on darknet markets, e.g., weapon distribution.

  • Whistleblowing and news leaks.

  • Purchase of illegal goods and services.

  • Enable users controlled by oppressive governments to access content that might be geographically blocked. 

The issue of keeping sensitive and illegal material grew significantly with the advent of the contemporary web, which was highlighted by the establishment of the Internet protocol suite in 1982. The digital equivalent of tax heavens, early solutions involved physical "data heavens." This data heavens, mostly in the Caribbean, promised to host everything from illegal pornographic sites to casino enterprises


In the 1990s, the Internet started going mainstream, and advances in file compression coupled with falling storage costs set off an explosion of darknet activity. It was only a matter of time before other criminal operations started to emerge as people realized they could easily get whatever they wanted whenever they wanted via the Internet.


The 1960s–1990s era brought attention to the rising need for private Internet connection away from the government's prying eyes. Even while the TOR project's development started in the 1990s, it wasn't until TOR's formal release in 2002 that it truly spurred the rise of the Dark Web. TOR was released to remain a free and open piece of software. This was done to ensure that anyone could easily access the program and that it would rely on a decentralized network for optimum security and anonymity.


Private networks like TOR were made available, which led to the emergence of multiple Dark Web sites and a subsequent following. Many hidden websites were initially created to assist people in fighting censorship while living under authoritarian regimes. However, the lure of having a private space online led to a meteoric rise in the number of dark websites containing illicit content. The following graph demonstrates the development of the Dark Web over time.



Today, the Dark Web hosts a vast range of sites and forums related to illegal and unethical purposes. From counterfeit goods, illicit markets for drugs, human trafficking, and contract killings to extremist sites, money laundering, and forums for distributing child sexual abuse material. All these activities are legitimate targets for law enforcement. These activities are easy to conduct and because of TOR’s encryption mechanisms much more challenging to prevent and prosecute. However, the Dark Web is not used only by criminals. Activists and political dissidents, law enforcement, journalists, and the military also take advantage of the anonymity and security offered by encryption. Although tools such as TOR aim to anonymize users’ activity, researchers and cyber security experts are constantly developing means by which certain Dark Web services and individuals could be identified/“de-anonymized”.

Nearchos Nearchou

Nearchos Nearchou is a determined person and 1st Class BSc (Hons) Computer Science and MSc Cyber Security graduate. He is a big tech-lover and spent several years exploring new innovations in the IT field. Driven by his passion for learning, he is pursuing a career in the Cyber Security world. Passionate about learning new skills and information that can be used for further personal and career development. Finally, he is the author of the book “Combating Crime On The Dark Web”.

1. What is the origin of the Dark Web?

The Dark Web has its roots in the 1960s ARPANET, initially developed as a secure communication network for the military.

2. What is a Darknet, and how does it operate?

A Darknet, coined in the 1970s, refers to isolated networks with hidden and highly secure traffic, allowing users to browse anonymously with little to no trace

3. What are the diverse purposes of Darknets?

Darknets serve various purposes, including ensuring privacy, facilitating criminal activities like human trafficking and fraud, file sharing, protecting dissidents, and enabling access to blocked content.

4. How did the TOR project contribute to the rise of the Dark Web?

Initiated in the 1990s and released in 2002, the TOR project played a pivotal role in the Dark Web's evolution by providing free and open software accessible to anyone, emphasizing decentralization for optimum security and anonymity.

5. What challenges do law enforcement face in addressing Dark Web activities?

Law enforcement encounters difficulties in preventing and prosecuting Dark Web activities due to the ease of conducting operations and the encryption mechanisms of tools like TOR. Ongoing efforts to "de-anonymize" certain users are part of this dynamic landscape.

Leave a comment