Ask LH: What Evidence Do My Illegal Downloads Leave Behind?

Dear Lifehacker, I'm what the guys at Village Roadshow would refer to as a filthy pirate. I sail the digital seas seizing movies and TV shows with total impunity (well, so far anyway). I do this not because of unfair pricing or unavailable content -- I just like free stuff. So my question is, what kind of evidence do BitTorrents sites leave behind? Has the fact I've never received a letter mean I'm safe, I should I prepare to walk the plank? Thanks, Captain Gingerbeard.

Dear CG,

Kudos for telling it like it is. Most advocates of online piracy parade a litany of excuses around in an attempt to justify their questionable behavior. You might be a "filthy pirate" but at least you're an honest one. (Well, apart from the whole not-paying-for-movies thing.)

As the Dallas Buyers Club decision amply proved, rights holders are getting tired of waiting for Australia to update its copyright laws. Instead, they are starting to go after individuals on a case-by-case basis.

These companies consider online piracy to be theft -- and they really want to punish you for it as a deterrent to others. Meanwhile, Australian ISPs are finalising an industry-wide copyright notice scheme that will see them introduce tougher measures on suspected copyright infringers. In short; the age of piracy is about to enter a bright or dark chapter (depending on which side of the ship you're standing on).

From a user perspective, the problem with sites like The Pirate Bay is that everything is out in the open -- when you download or seed a torrent, you're connecting to a bunch of other users, called a "swarm". All of those people can see each other's IP addresses — they have to in order to connect.

So what kind of evidence does your online swashbuckling leave behind? As luck would have it, we recently published an in-depth article on this topic by Robert Merkel, a software engineer and lecturer at Monash University. Here's what Merkel had to say:

Identifying the IP addresses of the members of a BitTorrent swarm is extremely simple. When a new client connects to the swarm, the IP addresses of the members of the swarm are transferred to the client, and existing clients are updated as new clients enter or leave.   Therefore, if an organisation wishes to identify those participating in trading a particular infringing file, they merely need to write a modified BitTorrent client that connects to the relevant swarm and records the list of participants.

Yikes. If you want to mask your tracks or make prosecution trickier, we'd advise using a Virtual Private Network (VPN). These provide an encrypted “tunnel” between an Australian computer and a proxy in a country with a less conducive legal framework for copyright infringements.

The end result works something like this:

Of course, signing up for a VPN provider can cause its own problems; especially if you go for a cheap foreign one. You should never assume that a foreign VPN provider is as committed to privacy or subject to the same laws as the ones that operate locally. Some VPNs happily log your data and will turn it over to anyone who asks which means you're basically in the same boat as before.

Be sure to check out our guide to picking the best VPN in Australia, along with this list of our five favourite VPN providers. This guide to anonymising your BitTorrent traffic is also worth a look. Needless to say, we aren't advocating your actions here and anything that happens is completely on you.

Cheers Lifehacker

Have a question you want to put to Ask Lifehacker? Send it using our contact form.


    You are interchangeably using copyright infringement (the correct term) and theft (the incorrect term). There is legal precedent here, so please use the right terminology. These corporations can try to manipulate language until they're blue in the face.
    Not theft: copyright infringement.

      Where in the article do I personally equate copyright infringement to theft?

        I think he's talking about

        These companies consider online piracy to be theft

        But the companies DO consider it theft, even if it isn't.

      You sound like you have a stick up your ass mate, do you need some help, lol

    wait a second, is it actually Illegally???!

      Nope. Question: is it illegal for your mum to give you a DVD? Nope. Is it copyright infringement to burn a copy of a DVD you bought and give it to your mum? Yep. On the internet, who makes the copy? The uploader. Even so, can someone with your IP address prove it was you sitting at the computer? Nope, circumstantial at best, but it doesn't seem to matter. Even so, does being part of a torrent swarm mean you're making copies of copyrighted material? Nope, but again it doesn't seem to matter. The phrase "illegal download" is just another thing invented by the copyright trolls to make people think they'll be in trouble if "caught". That way, when they send a letter asking for out-of-court damages, people are more willing to pay.

      I don't torrent myself; this war of language and murky legality makes me mad.

        It also gets murkier if your're seeding and not just leeching as some of what you downloaded gets re-distrubuted. Now it's you making copies, possibly only of little bits but still it's not a well tried legal position either way.

    I'm pretty sure he just skimmed through and didn't read the article...

    Well what about other kind of privacy? Say you get on some Chinese websites where you can streaming pirated movies (the websites themselves don't hold the copyright either, they just have user-uploaded pirated stuff). But you don't bittorrent the movie yourself.

      Good question - It looks as though it's just you and the Chinese streaming site in a single connection so torrent snooping would not catch you. On the other hand, the new Metadata laws would mean your ISP would collect information that you visited a known unauthorised streaming website and received a very large number of packets - although what you actually streamed would not be available.

    With the whole VPN proxy thing, I still don't know what's to stop them from asking the VPN for details.

    "Our records show that your VPN service downloaded (Insert_Movie_Name) using the IP ###.###.###.### at 10:30 Eastern Time. Which customer was using this IP during the aforementioned time?"

      depends on the VPN company but quite a few uses are swarm technique where one IP is associated with many users. so the answer to your question would be (at least for them) "well there was over 600 customers using that IP"

      I suspect if it's an American copyright holder asking a Netherlands VPN for information on a customer that could be anywhere in the world (as an example) even if they did receive a response, the return would probably not make it worth the effort of chasing.

      That said, many VPNs advertise that they do not log sessions and only keep client details for their own billing. - Worth a look see!

    How about direct download (rapidgator etc..) through websites like Real-debrid? Can anyone trace that?

      To make any internet connection, the IP of both end points are needed. Whether or need the actual connections are logged (with websites they usually are), is up to the server administrator.

    I love the honesty in this guys question.

    How about direct dl but not torrent? how do they track?

Join the discussion!

Trending Stories Right Now