Future Tense

Report: If You’ve Downloaded a Popular Movie via BitTorrent, You’re Probably Being Watched

Torrents for Harry Potter films and e-books were among the files that researchers noted were tracked

Photo by MOHAMMED ABED/AFP/Getty Images

Score one for highbrow tastes: If you’ve ever downloaded a popular movie, TV show or music album from a site like Pirate Bay, there’s a strong chance your IP address is sitting on a database somewhere. But anyone who’s used Torrent sites to obtain some obscure French art-house from the 1970s is likely flying under the radar.

That’s according to a report published today by a team of computer scientists based out of the University of Birmingham, England. The project, the first of its kind, took three years to complete, and offers a tremendous amount of new information about the extent to which various organizations are monitoring file sharing via BitTorrent.

BitTorrent websites allow people to download files from many users at one time. Sites such as the Pirate Bay don’t host copyrighted content—instead, they host “torrent” files, which are links to media files stored on other users’ computers in other parts of the world. BitTorrent is the latest generation of the peer-to-peer file sharing that began in 1999 with Napster. To determine the extent to which such sharing is monitored, the scientists actually created and operated their own “monitoring client” to gather data about newly published torrent files from the Top 100 in each category on The Pirate Bay.

So what exactly did their research reveal? They were able to identify 1,139 IP addresses linked up to the BitTorrent network that they believe were monitoring users around the world. Those IP addresses belong to copyright enforcement organizations, security companies, and government research labs, according to the report. For example, the scientists found IP addresses linked to the California-based Peer Media Technologies, a copyright enforcement agency, monitoring seven Harry Potter e-book and movie torrents.

Many of the suspicious IPs used third-party hosting companies, which the scientists speculated were intended to serve “as a front to disguise their identities.” Sixteen addresses were “assigned to a medium-sized computer security consultancy company that does not publicly acknowledge monitoring BitTorrent.” In another case, they found “a company that advertises itself as providing ‘intellectual property advice’, but does not specifically acknowledge monitoring BitTorrent.” The scientists chose not to disclose the names of these companies.

What’s revealing about the research is not that it shows monitoring of torrent users per se, which has been explored in previous academic papers. It’s that it sheds fresh light the sheer scale of the monitoring. Furthermore, it seems that copyright enforcers are targeting “only the most popular content,” and anyone sharing a popular film or music file is likely to have their activity logged on the network within three hours. You don’t have to be a mass downloader, either. According to the research, those who download a single film will be logged just as those who download 10 are.

But there is some good news for any of you scofflaws who have downloaded popular content. The scientists say that while the monitoring technology can detect that you are connected to a torrent client, they can’t necessarily prove you downloaded anything. This means that the data gathered through monitoring “falls short of providing conclusive evidence of copyright infringement”—and might not stand up in a court.