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?
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.
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