Torrenting: Know What Risks You Take

By   Paul Bischoff
Privacy Advocate , Comparitech | Sep 21, 2016 10:41 pm PST

Torrenting is the act of downloading many small bits of files at the same time from different sources – it’s essentially crowd sourcing for media content. While it can seem safe under the camouflage of the enormous World Wide Web, torrenting files can be a risky endeavour and could end up getting you into trouble that you might not even realise. While the underlying BitTorrent protocol and network is not in itself illegal, the bulk of content shared via torrents are made up of files that potentially violate copyright holders’ rights. Torrenting is popular and decentralized, so it’s tempting to believe there are no consequences.

So be warned: without taking necessary precautions, careless torrenters could be in for a rude awakening. The days of high-profile lawsuits in which Hollywood studios sued college students for tens of thousands of dollars might be over, but make no mistake: copyright holders are still waging a war on piracy behind the scenes.

Torrenters can run into trouble in three main ways: legal settlements, ISP penalties, loss of privacy, and infection by virus or malware. The peer-to-peer BitTorrent network relies on users who have downloaded a file to subsequently upload it, which exposes them several vulnerabilities.  Here are some dangers of torrenting to bear in mind:

Copyright trolls

If you’re torrenting illegally, whether you realise it or not, there is a chance you could get chased for copyright infringement.

Rarely does a Hollywood movie studio directly sue individuals for downloading their latest release without permission anymore. This was a common scare tactic that proved ineffective to stem the growth of BitTorrent a decade ago. Instead, the legal front was taken on by entities known as copyright trolls.

A copyright troll gets permission on behalf of the copyright holder to take legal action against people who illegally download media. The BitTorrent protocol is built in such a way that when a device connects to a torrent, it can see the IP addresses of all the other devices connected to that torrent. Everyone who is uploading or downloading that file can be targeted by a copyright troll.

The IP addresses can be traced back to internet service providers. The copyright trolls send a list of IP addresses and settlement letters to the ISPs, who in turn forward those settlement letters to their customers.

These settlement letters typically ask for a few thousand dollars if the receiver pays immediately, or else face a court battle that could cost them tens of thousands. Hundreds or thousands of these letters can be sent, and the copyright troll only needs the scare tactic to work a handful of times to make their efforts worth it.

However, courts have ruled that IP addresses do not constitute identities, so the best course of action to take if one receives a settlement letter is to ignore it. The letter most likely won’t have a name on it. If the troll receives a response, it will have an identity, which gives it more leverage.

Despite this, If you do get a letter, you know for sure you’re torrenting illegally, so stopping is the best advice; and should the situation escalate, it’s time to seek professional legal help.

 ISP throttling

Unless connected to a VPN or some other means of encryption, all of the internet traffic can and likely will be monitored by a user’s internet service provider. Internet service providers in the US are usually in league with copyright holders, don’t want to be held liable for privacy, and want to save bandwidth. For these reasons, they frown on torrenting, sometimes whether it’s legal or not.

If an ISP catches one of its customers torrenting, it’s common for them to start by sending a nasty letter. If that doesn’t work, an ISP could resort to bandwidth throttling, fines, or even account suspension and termination. Bandwidth throttling restricts the speed of an internet connection. Sometimes download speed is only restricted on certain ports (the ones used by a BitTorrent client), but some ISPs restrict all traffic.

Malware and viruses

Torrents are common sources of malware and viruses. This is especially true of software and games, which must be installed and executed. Always run virus scans and read through comments to prevent infection.

A good antivirus is key here. Some torrenters will post the results of a virus scan in the comments section of a torrent’s web page for others to see. They can’t always be trusted, however, as false positives are common and no antivirus is perfect. It’s always better to run your own scans before opening a file.

The IP addresses for every device connected to a torrent are visible to everyone else. IP addresses can be used by advertisers, hackers, and even law enforcement to target individual users.

So if you want to keep you privacy and data protected from the various threats emanating from p2p networks, you should use the entire arsenal of computer protection: latest updates for the operating system installed on your device, a strong anti-virus security suite, and encryption of your internet connection, these are the must-have things while torrenting. VPNs will help with the latter to mask your activities but they’re not foolproof with logjams, kills switch and DNS leakage common torrenting hazards and it pays to look around to find the best providers.

Popcorn Time uses torrents

Popcorn Time streams TV shows and movies in a slick, easy to use app. Many users might not even realize that video is streamed directly from torrents. Once Popcorn Time starts downloading a video to your computer, it can also start uploading it to other users.

It makes no difference to an ISP or a copyright troll whether you use Popcorn Time or ThePirateBay to watch your shows–they both constitute a copyright violation.

 Some torrents carry greater risks than others

Newer and more popular releases tend to be watched more closely by copyright trolls than other torrents. A general rule of thumb is movies within 60 days of their DVD and Blu-Ray release are more heavily monitored. This is the period during which movies and TV shows make the majority of their profit.

Popular torrents give copyright trolls a greater range of IP addresses to target, so they’re a better hunting ground for victims. Don’t be tempted to jump on the bandwagon and download the most popular torrents.

Don’t let Netflix VPN ban drive you to illegal torrenting

Netflix users outside of the US are now prohibited from using a proxy to access TV shows and movies that aren’t available through the service in their own countries. Shortly after the company’s global rollout, it began blocking proxy connections no matter where they originated. The purpose is to honor content licensing agreements with copyright holders, but the result was many Netflix subscribers being stuck with a smaller selection of shows.

Unsatisfied with the reduced catalog, many users resort to torrents to fill the gaps. But know that not all VPN services have surrendered to Netflix’s new policies. Some VPNs can still access US Netflix and other content limited to specific countries. Unlike torrenting copyrighted material, bypassing a geo-lock with a VPN is not illegal. Certain Smart DNS proxy services are offer alternate, viable workarounds and are also perfectly legal.

Whether you are torrenting or bypassing the Netflix firewall, a VPN is always a good idea.

Use a VPN

Don’t pirate. That’s the simplest way to avoid paying settlements and suffering ISP penalties. You can find a list of free and legal torrenting sites here. But even if you think what you’re downloading is within the law, the best way to avert these risks is to use a VPN.

Short for virtual private network, a VPN encrypts all of a device’s internet traffic and routes it through a location of the user’s choosing. This prevents ISPs from deciphering traffic and masks the device’s IP address so that copyright trolls can’t trace it back.