Ask LH: Is Usenet Safer Than BitTorrent?

Dear Lifehacker,

I've been downloading torrents for a long time and people keep telling me about how great Usenet is, but is it actually safer than BitTorrent downloads? Or is it just not as popular?

Sincerely,

Searching Bins

Title image remixed from Leremy (Shutterstock).

First off, BitTorrent and Usenet are both pretty safe provided you're not downloading anything illegal and we don't condone you use either for anything else. That said, you can face problems even if you aren't doing anything illegal — like ISPs throttling your traffic or exposing your IP address and download habits to anyone watching.

Even though it has been around for years, Usenet is still a bit of a mystery to a lot of people. If you want to get caught up on everything you need to know check out our guide to Usenet. On the surface, Usenet seems like it should be a lot safer because you're not directly sharing files with other users and tracking your activity is a lot more difficult, but you're not completely anonymous on Usenet either. Let's break down how it all works.

Anonymity And Secure Downloading On Usenet

Let's start by getting a good grasp on how Usenet works. First, you pay for a subscription to a Usenet provider. This gives you a monthly or data-capped plan to access information stored on Usenet. Every provider gives you access to the same files, much like an internet service provider (ISP) gives you access to the same internet.

Remaining completely anonymous on Usenet is very difficult. Unlike a P2P network, you have to pay a provider to get access to Usenet files. In order to pay you have to send over your credit card and billing information to get access to Usenet files and services. You could use an anonymous payment service like Bitcoin, but we won't get into that here.

Luckily, Usenet providers are good at keeping your download activity under wraps. Most Usenet providers offer a Secure Socket Layer (SSL) for everything you download, meaning nobody but you and the provider has any idea what you're downloading. Your internet service provider could notice you're taking up a lot of bandwidth, but they don't know how or why. To their eyes you could be downloading the newest Linux build or you could be watching a three-hour long porn epic.

In fact, they won't even be able to tell that you're using Usenet. The only person who knows what you're downloading is your provider, but since most Usenet providers do not keep logs of your activity (and since the retention rate — the length of time a server keeps files — isn't permanent like a torrent), tracking your downloads is far more difficult.

This differs from peer-to-peer in one key way. Tracking peer-to-peer downloads is as simple as looking at the IP address of someone seeding files (although, we've shown you anonymize your BitTorrent tracking before if you're interested). Usenet is a server filled with files uploaded by people just like yourself, so you're not broadcasting your IP address to strangers when you're downloading — you're only broadcasting it to your Usenet provider, who keeps no lasting record of your activity. Even if someone wanted them to hand over a list of everything you've downloaded, they wouldn't be able to because it doesn't exist. Image: Nite_Owl.

Potential Legal Troubles

Since Usenet is often used for piracy, it's been having some legal troubles just like BitTorrent. Usenet users have been safe from prosecution so far, but providers haven't been. In 2007 the RIAA won a similar lawsuit against Newzbin. The claims, at least from a legal point of view, are similar to the ones filed against sites like MegaUpload or Pirate Bay in that Usenet providers offer access to files that are often copyrighted works.

The problem is, like we mentioned above, all Usenet providers give access to the same content so taking one down does absolutely nothing for the content. Usenet files uploaded by individuals are stored on servers around the world, not on one single person's hard drive. This is different than BitTorrent because a BitTorrent tracker actually tracks who has files and where. It's a heck of a lot harder to find and get rid of files on Usenet, which is why it's a great place to find crazy old out of print and unlicensed works of music and movies.

You Can Still Get Viruses And Malware From Usenet

One advantage peer-to-peer has over Usenet is that a lot of the links to torrent files are filled with comments. Inside those comments you'll find information about whether a virus was found or malware was detected. Usenet search engines often have similar comments, so you should check through those to avoid any bad repercussions — and, just like with torrents, it's always a good idea to scan them yourself. Luckily, we've shown you a great way to automate this process for all your downloads.

The point is that the safety of the files is almost as unpredictable as torrents, so it's always a good idea to scan them before opening and installing anything. As far as your anonymity is concerned, as long as your Usenet provider offers SSL you're pretty safe and you're harder to track on Usenet than if you're using BitTorrent. Your definitely safer on Usenet than openly using BitTorrent, but if you're using BitTorrent with the security measures mentioned above they're about equal. Image: inane_spiel.

Cheers,

Lifehacker

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Comments

    I use Usenet, but I never really figured out who the fastest most reliable providers are. Looking at the above (very nice BTW) I see they all use the same stuff, so is there any such thing as the fastest provider..? If anybody has a preference, I be interested to know. I use NZBMatrix, is there a better one out there or am I fine with them..?

      I should also mention I use BTGuard VPN but so far not together. I get the feeling I'm losing speed doing that, so I only use it for Torrents.

      Currently using astraweb for the access and nzbmatrix for the file search. Live in regional (according to Telstra) Tas and get constant 1.8-2.1 MB/s download speeds, so far extremely happy with my switch to usenet.

      I use Giganews.. I get crazy fast speeds of 2.1MB/sec on ADSL2+. I've been with Giganews for a couple of years now and I have only had to use BitTorrent a handful of times when I couldn't find some particular, niche thing that is only on BT. 99.9% of the time though, I find it on Giganews. The big thing with Newsgroups is "Retention" rather than speed.. Retention is the number of days they hold data for. Some might only hold 2 years worth of data, while another might hold 5 years of data. Obviously one that holds more years, is going to have more stuff that you can potentially download.. but also more results to wade through at the same time.

      The 256bit SSL encryption is just an extra peace of mind.. the speed is constant rather than reliant on seeds/peers.. the traffic doesn't look like P2P, so less chance of being throttled (for that reason alone). There are many pro's for using newsgroups..

      BT on the hand is free.. but you get what you pay for and are generally reliant on the "kindness" of others. At first newsgroups seems harder to use than BT.. but it only takes a short time to learn to use the other tools, which are very similar, for newsgroups.

    It should also be noted that, with BitTorrent, you're uploading the content to others as well as downloading it. Should you be uploading something illegally, surely you would be exposing yourself to more penalties than if you were merely downloading such content illegally.

    The other key benefit of Usenet over Torrents is speed. You can easily download at the full speed your link can handle, be that ADSL1 through to 100Mbit Cable. With Torrents its highly unlikely you will ever be able to do that.

    We've all heard of successful court cases and fines for torrent users. Has anyone heard of a usenet user being caught and fined?

    And let's not forget the other main benefit of newsgroups: the holy trinity of Sick Beard, Couch Potato and SABnzbd. I rarely bother downloading anything manutally myself these days - I just get emails form SABnzbd telling me something or other has just arrived.

    If you set your media up to be served out by something like Subsonic you can even watch/listen to it straight away on your phone or tablet too. My life is awesome.

      Dont forget 'headphones' too - it's like sickbeard for music.

      I moved from Torrents to Usenet because once you start downloading much more than 100-150GB/month it's literally impossible to maintain a 1:1 ratio on private sites without renting a seedbox. And if you're paying cash for a seedbox, it's better to pay a (almost always) smaller amount of cash for a usenet account and cut out all the manual intervention of shifting torrents around.

      Sab + sickbeard + couchpotato + headphones + subsonic +xbmc and I'm a happy, happy, happy little camper.

        This... replace xbmc with Plex though, and yes I am a very happy camper :)

    I use easynews, 5 years now. Perfect!

      +1. Easy news for many years now. I am on 100mb Telstra cable and get upto 10megabytes a second.

      +1 easynews!

    I guess the other benefit is that since there isn't anywhere near as much upload traffic when using Usenet, those of us on plans that count uploads and downloads will be much better off (particularly when compared to those on private trackers trying to keep a decent ratio).

    How can you make the statement that even with security measures bittorrent and usenet are the same? Usenet contains not even half of the fakes and virusses that bittorrent has and worst thing is bittorrent is seeder dependant, meaning that even if you have 50 seeders with a crappy connection it will give you a crappy download speed. Use software like spotnet(nl only) or spotgrit (eng) and you have software like napster or kazaa and all usenet binaries are nicely sorted. I use usenet for a couple of years now and i have steady speeds at 14,5MB/s (120Mbit) with most torrents I wont even get 2MB/s (20Mbit) so I praise you for writing information on the internet and help people but unfortunately I have to disagree on your statement.

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