Most people who have used Bittorrent technology have wondered this at one time or another. In this age of increasing digital restriction, you may wonder “am I being watched?” The answer to this question is definite “Yes!” but this monitoring is exclusive to Bittorrent. Nearly all aspects of our online lives are being tracked an recorded, though Bittorrent and other p2p file sharing technologies have attracted greater interest recently.
Who is Monitoring Bittorrent Activity?
There are a number of groups that track and monitor torrent downloads, and for a large variety of reasons. These groups include: The government, Internet Providers, Copyright owners, and researchers. Let’s look at each group individually…
Internet Providers (ISP’s)
Whether you realize it or not, your internet provider tracks your activity online. This monitoring can include everything from: connection logs and lists of web browsing activity, to comprehensive records of files downloaded and ports and protocols used (p2p software, video streaming, etc). Many ISP’s save this data in logfiles for up to 2 years! I guess your internet activity is less private than you thought.
Academic researchers have taken a great interest in Bittorrent lately. One of the questions they studied was: “Can bittorrent usage be tracked to individual users? And how easy is it to do so?” The conclusions reached were simple: 1)Yes and 2) Very.
A 3 year study by the University of Birmingham in the UK tackled this very issue, and the findings were startling. They not only found that bittorrent users are easy to track (your IP address is on full display for anyone connected to your torrent swarm), but they also concluded that copyright enforcers were “Monitoring Bittorrent usage on a massive scale.” If you downloaded a popular torrent file from one of the largest bittorrent trackers (such as ThePirateBay or KickassTorrents) you’re IP address was likely tracked and logged “within a matter of hours.”
This monitoring is accomplished easily with automated software that connects to various swarms, logs the IP addresses of all connected users, and then moves on to another swarm. There are a number of third-party services that conduct this monitoring on behalf of copyright owners, or even do it on their own with the hopes of selling the results.
Companies such as Scaneye are starting to pop up everywhere. You can even search their database to see if your IP address is associated with any Bittorrent activity. This company usually monitors the most popular torrents, so just because you don’t show up in their DB doesn’t mean you’re in the clear. There are literally dozens of these agencies, all tracking different torrents.
For more information on ScanEye and other monitoring agencies, check out this awesome article at TorrentFreak
In addition to hiring third-parties to do the monitoring for them, organizations such as the MPAA and RIAA are doing some monitoring on their own. Individual record labels and movie studios also track Bittorrent usage, usually for the purpose of initiating lawsuits. Famously, Voltage Pictures (the studio behind “The Hurt Locker) has sued over 85,000 people for illegally downloading The Hurt Locker using Bittorrent. This CNN Article from 2011 estimates that the lawsuits by Voltage Pictures could actually net the company more cash than the movie even earned at the box office in its theatrical release.
With a huge percentage of people targeted in the lawsuit choosing to settle for a few thousand dollars rather than risk a trial and potentially huge damages along with paying the other teams legal fees (and you know those won’t be cheap). The result is a predictable secondary revenue stream, and other movie studios are taking note. If the economy and box office revenues take a hit in the near future, expect to see a spike in copyright lawsuits against individuals as well.
While the white house and congress have taken little in the way of direct action regarding the future of digital piracy, there position is clear. Intellectual property rights must be protected. This is an absolute requirement for a capitalist society to function, and you have no argument from me. Without trademark protection, there would be no rewards for innovation and the imitators would prosper even more than the innovators.
This is more true for industries and businesses, however, than it is for individuals. The record companies would disagree, but I would bet that more than 80% of content illegally downloaded using Bittorrent would never be purchased otherwise, so digital piracy is not costing the music and movie industries nearly as much as they claim. In certain cases, file-sharing has probably helped further some artists careers and made them more successful than they would have been otherwise, putting more money both in the artists’ pockets and those of their management.
While the government decides on what official actions they will take to curb piracy (and they will take action at some point) you can bet that they are watching closely, and most likely monitoring torrent activity directly. This monitoring may be purely to assess the scope of bittorrent usage, or it may have more far reaching implications.
The bottom line is: If you’ve downloaded more than 1 torrent file a week for the past year (illegally or not) your IP address is almost certainly in a database some where, possibly even matched to your exact name, address, or social security number.
How to protect your Bittorrent Privacy and avoid monitoring:
There is no certain way to avoid monitoring, but there are few easy steps you can take to dramatically reduce your exposure and visibility online.
#1) Get a VPN
I cannot emphasize this one enough. Every american that uses the internet on a regular basis should have a VPN, if only to help secure personal financial information and make identity theft harder. A VPN also has several features that are extremely useful for Bittorrent users or those who want to dramatically improve their privacy online:
An Anonymous IP Address
When you connect to your VPN server, you will be assigned a different IP address each time, one that is completely different than the static, permanent IP address that your ISP has probably assigned to you. The result is, then any people or websites that log your IP address online will be logging the address of your vpn, not your personal internet connection.
Because you likely share this vpn with hundreds or thousands of other users, you true identity remains anonymous.
Several VPN providers go even further to guarantee your anonymity by keeping minimal connection logs, no usage statistics, or even allowing you to pay for your VPN service though 100% anonymous means by using BitCoin. The Best Bittorrent VPN guide has lists and reviews of the best vpn services for bittorrent.
Nearly all VPN’s provide integrated data encryption. This means that all information going to and from your computer will be fully encrypted, making it virtually impossible for anyone to intercept and decipher your data. This is even true for your ISP. No longer will they be able to keep logs of your web browsing history and downloads. All they will see is encrypted traffic coming from your VPN with no idea what it contains.
This encryption also means that your sensitive information will be safe even when you use unsecure wireless networks like public hotspots. Most people don’t even realize the security risk you run by connecting your computer to public wifi. With a VPN you will always be safe and secure.
The best part is VPN service is extremely affordable, and nearly as fast as your regular internet connection. You can find bargain VPN service as low as $3.33 per month, and nearly all consumer-grade VPN’s offer unlimted service for under $12 a month.
Visit VPNTestdrive.com for In-Depth VPN Reviews to help you make the best choice.
#2) Use Private Bittorrent Trackers
The vast majority of torrent monitoring occurs on publicly accessible torrents from public trackers. If you can manage to get an invite to a private tracker, you’ll be much less vulnerable.