Do you enjoy the occasional movie off of The Pirate Bay? Or maybe you prefer a “private” torrent club? As it turns out, regardless of if you are torrenting off The Pirate Bay or exclusive, members-only torrent clubs, your IP address is not safe.
Dr. Tom Chothia and other computer scientists from Birmingham University conducted a three-year research study in which they found a somewhat astonishing trend: the IP addresses of people who illegally torrent popular content is monitored and recorded within three hours of the download.
As part of their research, Dr. Chothia and his team developed their own BitTorrent tracker that logged all the connections that where made to it. According to their research paper, Dr. Chothia and team used their tool to “gather newly-published torrent files from the Top 100 in each category on The Pirate Bay, and continually contacts each of the trackers and stores (IP address, port number, infohash, time) tuples from the peer lists that are returned; it then attempts to establish a TCP connection with each host and sends a handshake message to ensure that the host is in fact BitTorrent peer. The monitor also requests from trackers the number of seeders and leechers in each swarm.” Using this method, the team was able to gather over 150GB worth of BitTorrent activity involving 1,033 swarms and 421 trackers, over a time span of roughly two years.
In the process of the just-mentioned data mining, the researchers discovered roughly 10 monitoring companies that were (are) logging downloader data. Some of these monitors were identified as copyright enforcement firms, researchers, and security firms while the six biggest monitors were unable to be identified because of the way they routed their traffic through third-party services.
According to Dr. Chothia, it does not matter if you are a regular downloader or download once a in a while — the above-mentioned monitoring companies log the data of anyone and everyone. If you downloaded popular content, your information is logged within roughly three hours while the monitoring of less popular content is also prevalent but not as much.
You don’t have to be a mass downloader. Someone who downloads a single movie will be logged as well. If the content was in the top 100 it was monitored within hours. Someone will notice and it will be recorded.
While it may seem plausible for monitoring to happen on public torrent trackers, private torrent clubs should prevent it, right? Not so. Dr. Chothia’s team discovered that private torrenting clubs, you know the ones that provide access to members only and supposedly blacklist monitoring firms, are not very effective:
Many of the monitors we found weren’t on the blocklists so these measures to bypass the monitors aren’t really working.
Interestingly enough, while some of the logged information will definitely be used to try to extort money out of illegal file sharers, the researchers mention that some of the firms collecting the torrent data are “simply sitting on the data” in the hope that such information will be useful in the future. On the other hand, other monitoring firms are selling the collected data for marketing purposes — to help show what movies, TV shows, etc. is popular where.
As expected, people aren’t exactly happy about this despite the questionable actions of file sharers. As one commentator puts it, file sharing may be illegal but so is monitoring Internet usage without a warrant (or so he thinks) — does that mean the victims of torrent monitoring can sue the monitors:
Okay illegal downloading is stealing, but what of monitoring my internet use without a court order. Can I demand a copy of all their info under data protection? Can I correct errors? Can I sue the monitors for breech of privacy? Doesn’t all this sound slightly one sided? Once again big business rides over the rights of the little guy who can do nothing to stop them.
Legal or not, the bottom line is monitoring and logging of people that torrent is going on. So keep that in mind the next time you go to download The Twilight Saga.