Earlier this week, a Lifehacker reader caught downloading copyrighted material using BitTorrent told us about the scary warning letter she received from her ISP about a big media company who filed a complaint. Fact is, whether you’re downloading copyrighted material or not, no one likes to have their activities online monitored. Let’s take a look at ways you can protect your downloading and file sharing privacy, and prevent the big media companies and other anti-P2P organisations from spying on your file sharing habits.
NOTE: It would be irresponsible to assure you that all of the methods highlighted below are foolproof. However, each method can do a lot to increase your privacy and security when you’re downloading.
How You Get Caught Sharing Files with BitTorrent
When you download a file using BitTorrent, you’re connecting to several peers who are distributing chunks of the file you’re downloading. In order to send data back and forth, you and your peers exchange IP addresses. (IP addresses are like mailing addresses for sending data over the vastness of the internet.) When you’re downloading copyrighted material, sometimes disingenuous organizations will join in the download and log your information, like your home IP address. Once they have your address, they can find out who your ISP is and contact them to complain about copyright-infringing activity.
There are a few methods you can employ to protect yourself from this sort of tracking when you’re sharing files with BitTorrent, thus setting up a layer of protection between you and those who might track you and report you. Below I’ll cover a couple: PeerGuardian2 and proxies—particularly a new proxy service called BTGuard.
Keep Anti-P2P Trackers Away from Your BitTorrent Downloads with PeerGuardian2
IP-blocking application PeerGuardian2 (PG2) uses a constantly updated blacklist of IP addresses known to track your activity. I mentioned PG2 in my intermediate guide to BitTorrent, but it bears refreshing. Here’s how it works:
The first time you run PeerGuardian2 after you install it, you'll have to go through a setup wizard to tell PeerGuardian what kind of blacklists to download and block. By default, PG2 already has Anti-P2P organizations checked. For our purposes, that's really all you need, but PG2 is capable of blocking more IPs if you have other privacy concerns beyond P2P that you want to address.
On the next window of the PG2 setup wizard, you need to set your automatic update preferences. Since your privacy is only as good as your blacklists, you want to ensure that you've always got the latest and greatest lists available, so I'd recommend choosing to check automatic updates every day.
Now you're done setting up PG2. On the last window of the setup wizard, you'll notice a disclaimer similar to the disclaimer I made above. Remember, PG2 is not and cannot be 100% effective, but it will provide a good deal more protection than downloading without.
When you click finish on the wizard, PG2 will run its first check for updates, downloading the blacklist for Anti-P2P organizations. With PG2 running, you'll never connect to the IP addresses on the Anti-P2P blacklist, meaning that those organisation can't log your IP and your participation in a copyrighted download.
Obscure Yourself from Anti-P2P Trackers with a Proxy
When it comes to privacy on the internet, no solution is better than a good proxy—whether we're talking about no-hassle proxy solutions like previously mentioned Vidalia (which makes setting up a proxy through the Tor project a breeze) or techier solutions, like rolling your own SSH proxy.
If we're talking about file sharing, a proxy protects you by routing all of your traffic through another server when it leaves your computer and before it comes back to you. That means that when you're downloading data using a peer-to-peer protocol like BitTorrent, your peers can only see the proxy IP address, not your home IP address—so even if they are tracking your activity, they're not actually tracking your address at all.
There are a number of proxy servers out there, including the well known The Onion Router network (Tor). The catch is, Tor is a proxy project that's already choked for servers and speed, and using Tor to download via BitTorrent is considered poor form. However, there are other proxy servers out there, including one made specifically for BitTorrent routing called BTGuard.
Located in Canada, BTGuard is a subscription service (about $7/month) that promises anonymous BitTorrent connections, unlimited speeds, and that it can bypass your ISP's bandwidth throttling (if your ISP throttles BitTorrent).
The main catch when sending your BitTorrent traffic through proxies is that you'll most likely see a speed drop, and sometimes it's a very significant drop. According to the TorrentFreak weblog, though, BitTorrent transfers with BTGuard are almost equal to a direct connection—meaning you get all the protection of a proxy without any of the nasty slowdown.
To set up a proxy in the popular BitTorrent client, uTorrent, just go to the uTorrent preferences, click on Connection in the sidebar, and then find the Proxy Server section. From there, choose your proxy server type (Socks4/5, HTTP or HTTPS), enter in the address and port of your proxy server, and include any login information if your proxy uses it. (If you're using BTGuard, for example, you'll be given a username and password when you sign up.) Finally, be sure to tick the checkbox labelled "Use proxy server for peer-to-peer connections," which is the whole reason you're setting it up to begin with.
Anecdotes of folks who've been caught downloading copyrighted material are always a little scary. Despite the legal issues involved, don't forget that BitTorrent is only a protocol, and you choose how to use it. BitTorrent isn't synonymous with copyright infringement—there are plenty of legal uses and legal downloads going on with BitTorrent applications every day.
Whether or not you're using your BitTorrent client to download copyrighted materials, no one likes being spied on. If you're really serious about protecting your privacy, a proxy solution is probably the best. There are several drawbacks to proxies, most notably speed issues, but also difficulty in finding reliable free proxies or the cost of a service like BTGuard.
PeerGuardian2 is freeware, easy to use, and will never slow down your downloads. However, it's much more susceptible to holes than proxies, since an IP-blocker is only as good as its blacklist, and those lists have to change and update regularly to keep up with the Anti-P2P addresses.
If you practice safe(r) BitTorrenting using one of these methods or an entirely different approach, share your experience in the comments. Alternately, if you throw caution to the wind, downloading copyrighted material with impunity, we'd love to hear your thoughts as well.
Lastly, for the sake of curiousity, we're wondering:
For those of you who are still new to BitTorrent, check out our beginner and intermediate guides.
Adam Pash is a senior editor for Lifehacker who encourages safe downloading. His special feature Hack Attack appears regularly on Lifehacker AU.