Safe Torrenting on Android Devices

Protecting Your p2p Torrenting on Android means using a VPN, period

That Android phone sitting in your pocket is in reality a remarkably powerful, Internet-connected computer. It can do things that just a few short years ago required a full desktop PC. And unlike Apple with its closed eco-system, one of the coolest things you can do is download torrents.

So How do I Torrent using Android?

If you don’t know how to torrent (especially using Android), here is a quick guide to get you started.

1. Download and install a BitTorrent app. Although the desktop version is somewhat bloated, the Android Vuze Torrent Downloader app is lightweight and ad free (something that cannot be said for the µTorrent app!).

2. Visit a favorite torrent indexing website using your mobile browser. Find content you like, and select its .torrent or magnet link.

3. Your BitTorrent app should automatically open and start downloading your content. Enjoy! Note that for watching video content, VLC for Android and BSPlayer will play just about anything you might throw at them.

Torrents are Easy to Share but that also Creates a Privacy Problem

The BitTorrent peer-to-peer protocol is a fantastically efficient way of sharing files with others users – be they music files, movies files, or program files. And because file-sharing occurs over a decentralized distributed network, it is extremely difficult for anyone to put a stop to it.

The only problem is that the way the BitTorrent protocol works also makes it very easy for online snoops to track down individuals downloading torrents. This is because… well, the clue is in the names P2P and file-sharing, really. Rather than downloading files from a centralized server, they are shared among everyone else who is downloading the same file.

This makes it ridiculously easy for snoops to monitor who shares and downloads files, as everyone who downloads a given file can see the IP address of everyone else who downloads that file!

So What can Happen?

In most places (but not all), downloading certain content can be regarded as a civil rather than a criminal offense. This does not, however, mean that you can’t get into trouble:

  • In the US, the “Six Strikes” Copyright Alert System (CAS) is a graduated response system agreed to by many ISPs. Repeated offences can lead to bandwidth throttling and, ultimately, cancellation of your contract. Similar schemes (either voluntary on the part of ISPs, or legally mandated) exist elsewhere.
  • Some parties can try suing you for damages. In theory this can result in financial penalties that amount to tens of thousands of dollars.
  • In practice, the difficulty of winning such cases has led these parties to try more underhanded tactics of extorting money from those it has identified stealing their intellectual property. “Speculative invoicing” is an attempt to strong-arm intimidated victims into paying a cash settlement in order to avoid being taken to court for damages.

Speculative invoicing is now by far the common response, and is often carried out by specialized legal firms known as “trolls.” If you are ever targeted in this way, check out the Speculative Invoicing Handbook (PDF download), and the British government’s official guidance. Although both documents are aimed at a UK audience, the advice they contain should also be useful to residents of North America and Europe.

How to Protect your Torrenting on Android

Experienced desktop downloaders should already be aware that the best way to protect yourself while downloading is to use a VPN. The great news for anyone wishing to torrent on the move, is that the same advice holds true on your Android device. Almost every VPN provider supports the Android OS.

A VPN will protect you when torrenting because:

  • It hides your real IP address behind that of a VPN server. This means that snoops watching online will notsee your IP address, but instead will see the IP address of your VPN provider's servers.
  • It hides all your internet traffic from your ISP, because all traffic between your Android device and the VPN server is securely encrypted.

Using a VPN is also useful for connecting to torrent sites, as these are blocked in many countries. To access blocked torrent sites, simply connect to a VPN server located in a country where they are not blocked. This consideration is especially important in many European countries.

If torrent websites are blocked in your country, then the Netherlands, Switzerland, Sweden, Romania, and Bulgaria are all great choices when choosing a server to connect to.

Please be aware, however, that not all VPN providers permit torrenting. If you torrent using a VPN that doesnt allow torrenting then you are at risk of having your VPN account terminated without notice, and may even find that your details have been forwarded to snoops in response to complaints or requests for information. So check first!

The good news is that any VPN provider that permits P2P torrent file-sharing is basically agreeing to shield you from snoops. This promise can be trusted because it is part of their business model, and failure would likely be disastrous for their reputation and pocketbooks.

Support for Torrenting on Android

VPN providers support Android devices in one (or more) of three ways:

1. PPTP and L2TP/IPsec Setup Guides

Android natively supports the PPTP and L2TP/IPsec VPN protocols. These are fairly easy to configure, and require no additional software to be installed on your device. Most VPN providers offer step-by-step setup instructions for one or both of these protocols.

If torrenting is your only reason for using a VPN on your Android device, then these setups may be sufficient for your needs. If you also use a VPN to provide security and privacy, however, then you should be aware that PPTP is very insecure. L2TP/IPsec is much better in this regard, but has weaknesses. OpenVPN is widely regarded as the better option.

2. OpenVPN Setup Guides

OpenVPN is the industry standard VPN protocol for good reason. Although it is not native to any operating system, it can be deployed on all operating systems via apps. If properly implemented (i.e., using strong ciphers and Perfect Forward Secrecy), OpenVPN is also believed to be resistant against even the NSA.

OpenVPN was developed as an open source project, and two excellent free and open source (FOSS) OpenVPN apps are available for Android. These are OpenVPN Connect from OpenVPN Technologies, Inc, and OpenVPN for Android by Arne Schwabe.

These apps use standard (desktop) OpenVPN certificates, and can therefore be used with any VPN service that supports OpenVPN (almost all of them) – even if this is not explicitly mentioned.

These apps are so good, in fact, that many providers are content to support Android by simply providing setup guides for using them with their service. This setup is not hard (basically install the app and download the OpenVPN certificates), but is a little more involved than configuring PPTP or L2TP/IPsec.

3. Custom Apps

It is increasingly common for VPN providers to offer custom Android VPN apps. Unlike custom iOS apps (which use IKE and IKEv2 in order to comply with Apples official developer guidelines), these Android apps almost always use OpenVPN.

The main advantage of custom apps is that they require zero configuration. Download the app, sign-in, select a VPN server, and you are good to go. Custom desktop apps often have useful bells and whistles such as advanced encryption options, kill switches and ‘scrambling' (obfuscation) features.

The best examples of powerful Android VPN apps are Private Internet Access (shown at right) and IPVanish VPN. These Android VPN apps are as fully featured as desktop cousins, and include a kill switch, advanced encryption options, and other cool stuff.

As more and more people shift away from desktop PCs, and rely on their mobile devices as their primary means of accessing the Internet, we can expect to see more emphasis on advanced Android VPN apps in the future.

Figure: PIA’s Android app settings

Kill Switches Help Protect your Torrenting on Android Too

A VPN will protect you when torrenting, but what happens when the VPN goes down? This is an even bigger problem on mobile devices than desktop PCs (where it still happens), because with a mobile device you regularly switch internet connection between mobile and WiFi networks, and between WiFi networks. If your VPN connection goes down, but your torrent app continues to download, then your IP address will be exposed for all the world to see…

Desktop VPN apps often solve this problem by including a “kill switch”. This either shuts down your internet connection when it detects that your VPN is not running, or (better) uses a firewall to ensure that no internet traffic is possible outside the VPN connection.

How to Configure a Kill Switch for Any OpenVPN Supported VPN on Android (Advanced Users)

As already noted, the Private Internet Access and IPVanish VPN apps are the only ones that we are aware of to include a full-fledged kill switch. However … it is possible to configure the open source OpenVPN for Android app to work as a very effective kill switch! It will even reconnect back to the VPN when you move between routers and WiFi etc.

1. In the OpenVPN for Android app, go you your VPN server settings page (pencil icon).

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2. Go to the “Routing” tab and ensure that “Use default Route” is selected for both IPv4 and IPv6. This ensures that all internet traffic only passes through the VPN when the VPN is running.

kill-switch-2
3. Go to the “Advanced” tab, the check “Persistent Tun”, and set “Connection retries” to Unlimited.

kill-switch-3

You now have a kill switch for Android! 🙂

Safe Torrenting on Android Wrap-Up

Torrenting on your Android device has never been easier or more rewarding. The key thing to remember is that all the dangers of torrenting on your desktop also apply to your mobile device, so to stay safe it is vital to use a trusted VPN supporting torrenting on Android at all times.

Happy (safe) downloading!

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