Everything you need to know about torrent monitoring and how to protect your p2p file-sharing from being snooped on
There are two major types of torrent monitoring. Your torrenting activities can be monitored by:
- your Internet service provider (“ISP”)
- third party snoops – use your imagination (see the torrent snooping sites further below)
1. Torrent Monitoring by your ISP
Unless you take certain precautions, your ISP can easily monitor your Internet traffic, including your p2p torrent file-sharing activities.
This should make sense to you because all of your Internet data travels through your ISP’s servers, equipment and infrastructure. If your ISP doesn’t like what it sees, it could “throttle” or “shape” your connection (slow it down), issue you a “strike” (a formal warning), cancel your account and maybe even blacklist you.
Top Tip – If you want to hide your torrenting from your ISP, use a reliable and trusted torrent VPN such as IPVanish or Private Internet Access. Doing so will protect your torrent traffic from ISP monitoring.
2. Torrent Monitoring by Third Parties (“Snoops”)
If a third party snoop wants to monitor and record the IP addresses of people sharing a certain torrent, the snoop (or an organization hired by the snoop) needs only to share the same torrent, join its “swarm” (meaning all the people sharing that same torrent) and then record all the IP addresses sharing the torrent in that swarm.
Armed with this list of IP addresses, the snoop then only needs to trace each IP address back to its source. This will lead them to your ISP and then to you, through your ISP's connection logs. Your ISP's logs will have records on which customer was using a given IP address at a given time.
By definition, torrent file-sharing (and the peer-to-peer p2p technology underpinning it) means sharing files. OK, so far, so good.
But in order to share files, torrenters connect to one another to transmit the files. This is achieved through an exchange of IP addresses.
In other words, torrent file-sharing = sharing IP addresses.
If you are sharing the same torrent that a third party snoop is monitoring, they will be able to see your IP address, record it and trace it back to you personally through your ISP's logs, to take follow-up action. Yikes!
Sharing Files via Torrents = Sharing IP Addresses
You can see this for yourself. Select any active torrent in your torrent app and look for its ‘Peers'.
For example, in uTorrent, look for a peers tab. It's the third tab in the lower part of the uTorrent display (see screenshot below). There, along with some other details such as download and upload speeds, you will see the IP addresses for each of the other torrenters (peers) with whom you are sharing the torrent.
Figure: Monitoring torrent activities in utorrent's ‘Peers' tab
It's easy to automatically record these IP addresses too. And once recorded, the IP addresses can then be traced back to your ISP and, from there, to you.
See Torrent Monitoring Snoops in Action
To see how easy it is for snoops to monitor and record torrent file-sharing activities, check out the public sites, ScanEye and IKnowWhatYouDownload.
ScanEye Torrent Monitoring
To see a simplified example of how torrent downloaders can be mass monitored, see the ScanEye Global BitTorrent Monitor. The site automatically detects your IP address and then checks it against a database of torrent file-sharing activities.
If you perform the check and your IP address shows up as “clear”, click on the DEMO button to see the kind of information that snoops can easily obtain about non-protected torrent activities.
And remember, just because your IP address is clear at ScanEye, this doesn’t mean your torrent file-sharing activities haven't been monitored and recorded by some other torrent snoop.
Like ScanEye, IKnowWhatYouDownload has a huge database of IP addresses caught downloading torrents. Check to see if yours is among the 700,000,000 peers they monitor daily.
Here are two similar, but now dead, torrent monitoring sites that caused huge outcries years ago. Like ScanEye and IKnowWhatYouDownload above, these sites also had a searchable database of monitored torrent activities by IP address.
- https://www.youhavedownloaded.com/ (see Google's cache of YouHaveDownloaded.com to see what it looked like)
- http://www.btindex.org/ (see Google's cache of BTindex to see what it looked like)
And remember, all of these examples are just simplistic public sites: well-funded, potential adversaries have much more sophisticated and even secret means for monitoring torrent file-sharing users.
Using Shared IP Addresses Won't Save You Either
Shared IP addresses are a pool of IP addresses that your ISP allocates among many of its customers over time. But don't think that you can “hide in the crowd” this way to protect your torrent file-sharing from monitoring. It's not so simple.
Even with shared IP address, the snoops can ask or even compel your ISP to disclose their logs and confirm which of its specific customers was using the shared IP address at any given time. In other words, snoops can trace torrent activities back to you even if you use an ISP with shared IP addresses.
But I Swear I Didn't Download What it Says I Did!
Shared IP addresses can also lead to search results on torrent monitoring sites that are “false positives”. This can make it seem like you downloaded a torrent when you didn't. These kind of results can occur when your ISP uses shared IP addresses.
For example, the IP address your computer or device is using now when you check the monitoring site may have been allocated to someone else at this same time yesterday. If that other person was downloading a torrent yesterday with the IP address that you are now using, the torrent monitoring site isn't smart enough to figure that out and will think it was you that downloaded the torrent yesterday. However, if the snoop running the torrent monitoring service traced the IP address back to your ISP and looked at the logs at the time of the torrent download, the snoop would discover that the person that actually downloaded the torrent yesterday was not you.
How to Protect against Torrent Monitoring
The best techniques for avoiding torrent monitoring have been collected here, How to Download Torrents Anonymously.
If you are anxious about the issue and in a hurry, the key bottom line to protect your torrents from being monitored is to use a torrent-friendly VPN. This will counter the risks described above.
Using a reliable torrent VPN will:
- encrypt your Internet traffic and
- hides your true IP address
Let's look at each in more detail.
VPN Encryption Hides your Activities from your ISP and Snoops
Using a VPN to encrypt your entire Internet connection means that your traffic is sent through a protected data tunnel to and from the VPN's own servers. Because your torrenting is protected inside this encrypted tunnel, this fully hides your activities from your ISP and any third party snoops trying to monitor your Internet connection.
A VPN Hides your True IP Address When Sharing Torrents
Remember above how we said that sharing files by torrenting means sharing your IP address? This means that even if your connection is encrypted, you still need to share your IP address with other torrenters to get the files you want.
That's where the second feature of a torrent VPN comes in. The VPN masks your true IP address. This means that any torrenters (or snoops!) sharing a torrent file with you will never see your true IP address. Instead, they will see an IP address issued to you by the VPN service.
See below, how you are now protected with the VPN acting as a shield in between you and the torrent swarm.
You ⇒ VPN ⇒ Torrent swarm (which may include snoops!)
And if the VPN you use also keeps no logs, this combination makes it virtually impossible to trace torrenting back to you. However, be aware that logging policies vary between VPN providers, so you must choose your torrent VPN carefully.
Make sure to choose a VPN, such as IPVanish or Private Internet Access, that does not keep user logs of its customers' activities. This way, your torrent file-sharing will be as safe and protected as possible.