Saturday, 13 Jul 2024

Election Security Spotlight – The Surface Web, Dark Web, and Deep Web


The internet is a vast network consisting of multiple layers beyond what we commonly access through web browsers and email clients. Understanding these layers is crucial, as they include the Surface Web, the Deep Web, and the Dark Web. In this article, we’ll explore what each of these layers entails and why they are important in the context of election security.

what subsection of the internet requires specialized browser to access

What it is

To most users, the internet is what they experience through their email client and web browser every day. However, there are deeper layers that the average user may not be aware of. Let’s dive into each layer:

The Surface Web

The Surface Web is what users access in their regular day-to-day activities. It is publicly available and can be accessed using standard search engines like Google or Bing. Users can navigate the Surface Web using commonly used web browsers such as Mozilla Firefox, Microsoft’s Internet Explorer or Edge, and Google Chrome.

The Deep Web

The Deep Web refers to the portion of the internet that is not indexed or searchable by ordinary search engines. In order to access the Deep Web, users need specific URLs or IP addresses, or they must log in to certain websites. Pages that are part of the Deep Web may not use common top-level domains like .com, .gov, or .edu, which prevents search engines from indexing them. Examples of Deep Web content include data and content stored in databases that support services like social media or banking websites. The information on these pages is frequently updated and is presented differently based on a user’s permissions.

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The Dark Web

The Dark Web is a subset of the Deep Web that requires specialized software, tools, or equipment to access. Two popular tools for accessing the Dark Web are Tor and I2P, which provide user anonymity. Accessing the Dark Web requires receiving a link to a page from someone who already knows about it. While the Dark Web is notorious for illicit activities, such as the sale of illegal items and communication about illegal content, there are also legitimate activities taking place, including accessing information, sharing information, protecting one’s identity, and communicating with others. Many news organizations even operate on the Dark Web to protect their confidential sources.

Why does it matter

Understanding the distinctions between the Surface Web, Deep Web, and Dark Web is essential for election officials when establishing cybersecurity programs. For example, voter lookup information is stored on the Deep Web in many states, and misconfigurations that expose this sensitive data to the Surface Web can lead to data breaches. Furthermore, having context about the different levels of the web is valuable when responding to incidents affecting election offices or reading media and intelligence reports about malicious cyber activities. Armed with this knowledge, election officials and their staff can better determine the appropriate course of action to remediate incidents or identify compromised information specific to their organization.

What you can do

Given the multifaceted nature of the web, election offices should take several actions to enhance their security:

  • Review the data and information stored on the web to ensure it is properly configured and accessible only to authorized users.
  • Exercise caution when attempting to identify illegal postings of election information on the Deep and Dark Web. It’s advisable to engage with law enforcement partners experienced in investigating and communicating on these platforms.
  • When accessing the Dark Web, use a virtual machine (VM) to minimize the risk of infection or compromise. VMs act as an additional layer of security by providing a virtual layer between the system you are using and the physical network you are operating on.
  • Avoid assuming that information posted on the Deep or Dark Web is secure simply because it is difficult to locate.
  • Even when using software that promises anonymity, do not assume that you cannot be identified.
  • If you discover information related to your organization on the Dark Web, refrain from communicating with the source or sharing this information widely. In the past, malicious actors have exploited such communications for additional illicit cyber activities.
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Frequently Asked Questions

Q: Can you provide examples of legitimate activities taking place on the Dark Web?
A: Legitimate activities on the Dark Web include accessing information, sharing information, protecting one’s identity, and communicating with others. Many news organizations even operate on the Dark Web to safeguard the anonymity of their confidential sources.

Q: Is the Deep Web entirely secure?
A: While the Deep Web offers an additional level of privacy due to its limited accessibility, it is not entirely secure. It is crucial to exercise caution and maintain good cybersecurity practices when navigating the Deep Web.

Q: How can election officials protect sensitive voter data on the Deep Web?
A: Election officials should ensure that voter data stored on the Deep Web is properly configured and only accessible to authorized users. Regular reviews and security assessments are essential to mitigate the risk of data breaches.


Understanding the Surface Web, Deep Web, and Dark Web is vital for election officials as they develop comprehensive cybersecurity strategies. By recognizing the nuances of these web layers, election officials can better protect sensitive data and respond effectively to incidents. Remember to exercise caution when accessing the Deep and Dark Web and seek assistance from law enforcement partners if needed. With proper measures in place, election offices can safeguard their infrastructure and secure the integrity of elections.