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.
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.
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