Ask LH: What Does My ISP See When I’m Downloading Torrents?

Ask LH: What Does My ISP See When I’m Downloading Torrents?

Dear Lifehacker, I’ve done lots of research about my Internet Service Provider’s relationship with my uTorrent activity, but I still don’t feel entirely confident in my knowledge about what they see. What does my ISP see when I’m torrenting? What if I’m encrypted, or under a VPN? Many of your articles talk about how to stay safe/secure/private, but don’t always go completely behind the scenes. Can you help clear this up? Thanks, Baffled By BitTorrent

Image remixed from an original by Nomad_Soul/Shutterstock.

Dear Baffled,

You’re right; we’ve written a lot of articles about how to protect yourself over the years, but sometimes it can be confusing as to exactly what’s happening behind the scenes. And while it’s difficult to know, since every ISP is different, you generally have two different entities to worry about: your ISP, and the media companies looking to quash illegal downloading. Here’s what each of them monitors for and how you can keep yourself anonymous.

Your ISP Sees That You’re Using BitTorrent, And Might Throttle Your Connection


ISPs aren’t so interested in what you’re downloading. They leave that to the folks being stolen from. Instead, ISPs are more concerned with how much bandwidth you’re sucking up, and whether that’s slowing everyone else down. As such, some ISPs will throttle your connection — that is, slow it down — if they see you’re using BitTorrent. They don’t usually look at what you’re downloading (even though they could, if they wanted to), but they will check what kind of traffic is coming from your machine. That is, they’ll see how much of it is email, web browsing, video chat, online gaming, and so on. If they see any BitTorrent traffic, they might slow it down — it doesn’t matter whether you’re downloading a legal Linux ISO or Batman Begins. All they care about is that you’re slowing down their network.

To see if your ISP is looking for BitTorrent traffic, try the previously mentioned Glasnost tool. If your ISP isn’t throttling BitTorrent (and most of the Australian majors don’t do this routinely), then you don’t have much to worry about, though they still could see anything they wanted.

Media Companies See What You’re Downloading (And Will Tell Your ISP)


The real problem, if you’re downloading illegal media, is the company you’re stealing from. They (or lawyers or companies on their behalf) actually go online and seek out torrents of their material, whether it be movies, music, TV shows, or anything else, and will download the torrent themselves. From there, they can see a lot of information about the other users connected — including their IP address. You can even check this for yourself at home. Start downloading a torrent and click on the “More Info” section of your torrent client. You’ll see the IP address of everyone you’re downloading from and uploading to, plain as day.

Once they find your IP address (which they can do just by clicking “more info” in their torrent client), they’ll be keen to find out who your ISP is and get in contact. The exact process for how this should be done is a matter of contention in Australia right now, and we haven’t seen the same wave of legal letters that has occurred in the US. But detection and prosecution certainly remains a possibility.

So What Should You Do to Stay Anonymous?

It’s a dark time for BitTorrent. A lot of the old methods aren’t very useful anymore. Applications like PeerBlock claim to block the MPAA and RIAA from connecting to you, but they’re not very reliable, and you can still easily get caught when using PeerBlock. Similarly, while your BitTorrent client’s encryption can be helpful against throttling, it doesn’t always protect you, since some ISPs use more powerful methods of seeing what you’re downloading that can get past basic BitTorrent encryption.

These days, the only way to truly keep your downloading anonymous is to take more drastic measures. If you’re worried about getting caught downloading illegal materials, use a proxy like BTGuard. It funnels all your BitTorrent traffic through another server, thus keeping your IP address hidden from anyone connecting to your BitTorrent swarm. Even if you’re downloading a torrent that’s being tracked, they’ll see BTGuard’s IP, not yours, and BTGuard doesn’t keep any logs of its service, meaning they won’t trace that IP address back to you.

If you want to keep your traffic from being throttled, you can try enabling encryption in your BitTorrent client. if this doesn’t work, BTGuard provides an encryption program along with its proxy service that can hide your traffic better than uTorrent and other clients, to ensure you don’t get throttled.

Cheers Lifehacker

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  • BTGuard commonly gets mentioned but be aware that you will experience a significant reduction in speed due to the inability of your Torrent client to allow connections from outside. You are effectively connecting as if your incoming connections are blocked by your router. This is a side effect of being anonymous and simply means you need to be more patient. I’d expect all torrent proxy services to do the same.

  • “the only way to truly keep your downloading anonymous is to take more drastic measures.”

    I know the best way of not getting caught downloading off BitTorrent! rather drastic I must say…by not doing it! bloody hell, is this ethical LifeHacker, seriously??

        • +1 tomtalks – you can legally download files via BitTorrent, just that mostly it’s a medium for illegal downloads.

          Most people use the internet for nefarious purposes, therefore LH should put a warning on all their internet related articles that the internet is illegal. Right Christian and Jordan?

      • i use bittorrents all the time to download linux iso images..they are 100% completely legal. and sometimes it is recommended to use torrents to relieve load on the main servers…HAVE ANY OF YOU TRIED TO DOWNLOAD AN ISO IMAGE ONLY FOR YOUR TIME FOR COMPLETION TO BE 24 HOURS JUST TO DOWNLOAD A 1.5GB ISO FILE? PLEASE! i can download the same image in 10 or 20 minutes with a torrent depending on how many are seeding the file…

      • I don’t think he read the part where it was mentioned the ISP can see what it is, legal or not.
        There are plenty of legal torrents that people don’t want to be seen downloading.

        • Exactly.

          I’ve used torrent file-sharing for all kinds of legal downloads that could be construed as illegal in this guilty-until-proven-innocent liberal society.

          I’ve had to replace game disks, entire games, and even circumvent DRMs that were keeping me from getting what I paid for, to even simply having a working back up copy of all games I legally own.

          All of this should be perfectly legal, but regardless, can be misconstrued as illegal downloading, and a problem that I would just prefer not to have to deal with.

    • Exactly how would not downloading be considered anonymous downloading?
      I think you meant the best way to be safe is to not download.
      Whitson’s sentence is perfect as he’s assuming the downloading is necessary.

  • I currently rent a seedbox through Xirvik somewhere in Europe, so the torrents go direct to there, and then FTP to me.

    Am I protected?  It seems like having the middleman keeps me clear from the torrents. But what’s to stop the media company tracing the torrents to Xirvik and then demanding my details?

    • I would suggest at least using secure FTP (sFTP) since your ISP could still technically see the traffic from your seedbox.

      To answer the 2nd part of your question, you would ideally have a seedbox in a country with different or non-existant copyright laws. e.g. Luxembourg.

  • Every time I read an article about downloading I have to laugh cause most people seem to buy into the propaganda that its illegal to download. Its not. Doesn’t matter what you download. The ISP’s (as mentioned) do not care because they understand that one of humanity’s best inventions (the internet) needs piracy to work like it does. Every time you go to a web page you know you are downloading and creating a copy of that web page right? Having said that, how many copyrights do you violate everyday, just by web browsing? be it pictures, video, music, copy-righted text. Downloading and breaking copyright is a fundamental on how the internet works. Without doing so, we might as well not use computers and the internet for communications. Just cause you use bit torrent (or some other p2p program) or you don’t use it, is irreverent. The interent has how many people on it at any given time? how can the copy right holders even prove its you that is doing the downloading? just cause they see your IP in the list, it doesn’t mean squat. Your computer might have been compromised by a hacker and anybody on the interent could be using your computer and your connection as a proxy. You may be using an unsecured wireless router and anybody in your neibourhood could be using your IP to download. Given the general state of computer security ignorance, don’t it stand to reason that this is a good defense IF (and i emphasize if) the copyright holders try to sue you. You are only worried because you bought into their propaganda, Do not worry about what your ISP or anybody else may see your IP doing, with a bit of REAL knowledge (not propaganda) it is easy to protect yourself in court. I received one of those stupid cease and diciest letters when I was living in America. I just laughed at it because, I know they cannot prove anything. I know It is just a scare tactic. Once I received it I actually downloaded twice as much, just to spite them. If the copyright laws are rigorously enforced like the copyright holders want, do you relies that the interent would be dismantled piece by piece because the very meaning of copyright means to restrict communication, where as computers and the internet serve to maximize communication and to do so it means violating copyrights, thats just how it is.
    Bottom line – Use the internet, read, learn. Educate yourself. Understand that you are not doing anything wrong by using bit torrent (or any other p2p program)

    • Hey Toxi,
      Well said and I fully agree. In general most downloads from torrents are movies. Now, if the movie companies want to ban this they should also ban PV recorders being sold in shops. People record their favourite shows on these machines which could be considered in breech of copyright, yes? And what about pay tv sites. You can record their movies as well and then share them with your friends later. It’s all a load of c….p.

  • I love that bit torrent is used for legit purposes line, how often does anyone need to download a linix distro?Doesn’t only 0.0001% of pc’s use linix?Just fess up every one does it, it’s o.k..

    • Linux isn’t the only legit purpose for linux distro, WoW client uses bittorrent to download updates. There are some other games that do it as well as far as i know.
      Artists that allow bootleg versions of there music (concert recordings usually) are usually distributed using bittorrent.
      Creative Commons movies, web shows, etc can be distributed thorugh bittorrent.
      Its a way to minimize your data connection usage as a distributor.

    • Dodges what problems Abe? you have more problems using file servers than you do with torrents. and with torrents you dont need the server infrastructure like you do with file servers which costs money at some point. That just gives the right holders cause to believe someone is profiteering on the rights that they hold. Torrents do not cost anyone anything….except uploading bandwidth.

  • Here is what would be the best option… I don’t know if this is available yet.. You have cloud storage nearly everywhere across the net. If a site could be use to connect to a torrent file instead of a single user and download the media to a location on their network and then you access the file at that location like rapidshare, then you won’t be connected to a peer to peer network but rather to a file location which will prevent any media companies from identifying you.. 🙂

  • its as illegal as hitting record on a vcr or tape deck back in the day. .

    I download MAAAAAAASSSSSIVEEE amounts of music.. out of this massive lets say 500 new tunes a month.. i might actually like 30 songs..? then a week after out of these 30 keep 5-8 tunes.. that how shit content is today. So they can take back their 470 other songs.. because i did download them but ive already deleted them and i care not for them.

    Back inthe day, i used to Listen to a whole cd / album / record in a store and then decide if i want it or not.. and even still.. you could return it if you were not happy. You cant return an mp3 for a refund if its shit, nor an ebook or a movie.

    By Law, If i pay to go to the cinema, and the movie does not entertain me, then i have a right to a refund as the product does not fulfill its purpose of entertaining me. although that’s subjective.. its also fact. This Is The End – i died laughing.. and saw it 2 times.. so Village cinema gladly took my $38 for 2 sessions, however.. The Interview i thought was so shit.. its a comedy, i didnt laugh not once.. will village cinemas refund for not delivering the proposed entertainment? highly unlikely..

    2nd’ly,, back in the day some songs were cheaper to buy than other because the record label knew they were shit tunes.. and they were just trying to recover costs.. why are movies all the same price? why is cinema tickets all the same for all movies.. if a movie gets 5 out of 5 its the same price as a movie that is 2 stars out of 5.

    until they work this out.. im downloading.

  • Well, I do find everyone’s information interesting…..I came across through a friend who uses PIA, and they seem to work pretty good. The speeds are not slow with any of my browsing and all their servers are within the USA, although, there are servers all across the world; your settings will connect with local sites for your convenience. Plus, the price is very reasonable for the amount of files I share. They have their monthly and annual plans to choose from. The bottom line here is Lifehacker also gave a review of PIA a while back and PIA has held up to all the positive comments given by Lifehacker. Just make sure with all these services out there that you choose one that will not keep logs and PIA does just that!!! THEY DON’T KEEP LOGS! I haven’t had any issue with my local ISP and that is the way I like it!!! In addition, if you choose PIA, with their service, they will allow for vpn services for Mobil devices and direct you to create new user name and passwords given by PIA’s system automatically. They really take the head work out of it and allow you to do what you want worry free!!! This way I can browse, download or enter parts of the web that usually not be allowed by local governments. Thank you PIA for all these advantages by using your service! Well, I didn’t mention the specific question asked, so using the service I mentioned, all my ISP will see is the different IP addresses my computer will connect to all over this country as I browse or do any downloading or other types of file sharing. So far, I have been using this service for close to a year and I haven’t had any issues or concerns!!!

  • Would LH be kind enough to update this article in view of he fact that it was first penned in 2011??
    I believe that the laws have, or are about to, change and therefore new advice would be most welcome.
    Please let me know of any replies to this message. Thank you.

  • I second the post by NOSPAM. The article discusses how lawyers can track the downloader through utorrent. What about downloading through software like Internet Download Manager from a filehosting company like rapidshare. The ISP certainly knows the size of the download and the site where the files are being downloaded from. However, I presume the ISP doesn’t know if these files are movies, music or any other type of files, though it can track the file name and file size. In other words, is it safe to download from filehosting websites like rapidshare?

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