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Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Guide to Safe Torrenting: College Edition

The ubiquity and ease of use of the BitTorrent P2P protocol has attracted to it a countless number of users. But as with any P2P technology, it carries with it risks, especially in the context of copyrighted content. The MPAA, RIAA, and other so-called antipiracy outfits acting as mercenaries on behalf of content owners employ a variety of controversial techniques in an attempt to catch people downloading or uploading a torrent red-handed. The successful capture of a name, or more likely IP address can have some pretty undesirable legal consequences, particularly in the United States due to the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA). A cease-and-desist letter is usually sent, followed by a demand for a large, financially burdening out-of-court settlement. This threat is especially damaging on college and university campuses, where the user base is young and often ill-informed about P2P safety, not to mention poor! Furthermore, colleges and universities often have their own, equally undesirable sanctions should they have to forward a copyright claim letter to the student. The risk of being pursued for copyright infringement, however, can be significantly minimized if one knows how to keep a low surface profile on the network. Here are several tips and tricks that will help reduce the risks of using BitTorrent on a college network, or more generally, a high-risk environment.

  1. Refrain from downloading new, high-profile content in the days following its release
    Content creators and their hired copyright watchdogs are almost certain to be monitoring torrents of newly released movies and (possibly to a lesser extent) music and software. Don’t let the temptation of downloading a brand-new film screw you over – if you wait at least a week, the dangers of connecting to bad peers is significantly reduced.
  2. Limit your speed
    As with #1, it’s all about discipline, discipline, discipline. Is it really going to kill you to wait an hour or two extra to finish that torrent? If you’re maxing out your upload/download capacity for extended periods of time (especially likely if using a private tracker), red flags are going to start popping up. Any half-brained network administrator worth his salt will be suspicious and look to investigate. If your ISP doesn’t bust you, any antipiracy groups that happen to be monitoring the torrent will be drawn to high-speed peers.
  3. Use protocol encryption
    All the modern and major BitTorrent clients, including uTorrent, Transmission, and Vuze, support a feature called protocol encryption. Basically, the headers of any BitTorrent packets are obfuscated to disguise the nature of the traffic. Note that the actual data in the packet is not encrypted, however. Though this method is not at all foolproof, it will at least create a shadow of doubt as to the nature and purpose of that high-volume traffic going through the network.
  4. Use an IP blocklist
    As with #3, this method is nowhere near foolproof. However, it will afford you some protection in that it prevents you from connecting to known bad/malicious IP addresses that might be connected to watchdog groups/government agencies/etc. Several of the leading torrent clients support loading a blocklist in one format or anoather. If you’re using uTorrent, be sure to checkout my uTorrent IPFilter Updater, an in-house production of Binary Inspirations.
  5. Use private trackers, if possible
    Of course, this is not an option that’s feasible for everyone, including the casual user and newcomers into the BitTorrent world. Since private trackers have a limited user base, the risk of being monitored by copyright outfits is lower than on a public tracker. The smaller and more obscure the site, the less likely that any members are “double agents”. Additionally, some private sites have entry requirements and interviews that make it more difficult for malicious users to infiltrate (though not impossible - *cough* TorrentLeech *cough*!) The fast speeds and other perks of private trackers make them an option worth investigating if you haven’t already.

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