Protect Your Privacy When Downloading
Earlier this week, a Lifehacker reader caught downloading copyrighted material using BitTorrent
told us about the scary warning letter she received from her ISP about
a big media company who filed a complaint. Fact is, whether you’re
downloading copyrighted material or not, no one likes to have their
activities online monitored. Let’s take a look at ways you can protect
your downloading and file sharing privacy, and prevent the big media
companies and other anti-P2P organizations from spying on your file
NOTE: It would be irresponsible to assure you that all of the
methods highlighted below are foolproof. However, each method can do a
lot to increase your privacy and security when you’re downloading.
How You Get Caught Sharing Files with BitTorrent
you download a file using BitTorrent, you’re connecting to several
peers who are distributing chunks of the file you’re downloading. In
order to send data back and forth, you and your peers exchange IP
addresses. (IP addresses are like mailing addresses for sending data
over the vastness of the internet). When you’re downloading copyrighted
material, sometimes disingenuous organizations will join in the
download and log your information, like your home IP address. Once they
have your address, they can find out who your ISP is and contact them
to complain about copyright-infringing activity.
There are a few methods you can employ to protect yourself from
this sort of tracking when you’re sharing files with BitTorrent, thus
setting up a layer of protection between you and those who might track
you and report you. Below I’ll cover a couple: PeerGuardian2 and
proxies—particularly a new proxy service called BTGuard.
Keep Anti-P2P Trackers Away from Your BitTorrent Downloads with PeerGuardian2
IP-blocking application PeerGuardian2 (PG2) uses a constantly updated blacklist of IP addresses known to track your activity. I mentioned PG2 in my intermediate guide to BitTorrent, but it bears refreshing. Here’s how it works:
first time you run PeerGuardian2 after you install it, you’ll have to
go through a setup wizard to tell PeerGuardian what kind of blacklists
to download and block. By default, PG2 already has Anti-P2P
organizations checked. For our purposes, that’s really all you need,
but PG2 is capable of blocking more IPs if you have other privacy
concerns beyond P2P that you want to address.
the next window of the PG2 setup wizard, you need to set your automatic
update preferences. Since your privacy is only as good as your
blacklists, you want to ensure that you’ve always got the latest and
greatest lists available, so I’d recommend choosing to check automatic
updates every day.
Now you’re done setting up PG2. On the last window of the setup
wizard, you’ll notice a disclaimer similar to the disclaimer I made
above. Remember, PG2 is not and cannot be 100% effective, but it will
provide a good deal more protection than downloading without.
you click finish on the wizard, PG2 will run its first check for
updates, downloading the blacklist for Anti-P2P organizations. With PG2
running, you’ll never connect to the IP addresses on the Anti-P2P
blacklist, meaning that those organization can’t log your IP and your
participation in a copyrighted download.
Obscure Yourself from Anti-P2P Trackers with a Proxy
When it comes to privacy on the internet, no solution is better than a
good proxy—whether we’re talking about no-hassle proxy solutions like previously mentioned Vidalia (which makes setting up a proxy through the Tor project a breeze) or techier solutions, like rolling your own SSH proxy.
If we’re talking about file sharing, a proxy protects you by routing
all of your traffic through another server when it leaves your computer
and before it comes back to you. That means that when you’re
downloading data using a peer-to-peer protocol like BitTorrent, your
peers can only see the proxy IP address, not your home IP address—so
even if they are tracking your activity, they’re not actually tracking your address at all.
There are a number of proxy servers out there, including the well
known The Onion Router network (Tor). The catch is, Tor is a proxy
project that’s already choked for servers and speed, and using Tor to
download via BitTorrent is considered poor form. However, there are
other proxy servers out there, including one made specifically for
BitTorrent routing called BTGuard.
Located in Canada, BTGuard is a subscription service (about
$7/month) that promises anonymous BitTorrent connections, unlimited
speeds, and that it can bypass your ISP’s bandwidth throttling (if your
ISP throttles BitTorrent).
The main catch when sending your BitTorrent traffic through proxies
is that you’ll most likely see a speed drop, and sometimes it’s a very
significant drop. According to the TorrentFreak weblog,
though, BitTorrent transfers with BTGuard are almost equal to a direct
connection—meaning you get all the protection of a proxy without any of
the nasty slowdown.
To set up a proxy in the popular BitTorrent client, uTorrent, just go
to the uTorrent preferences, click on Connection in the sidebar, and
then find the Proxy Server section. From there, choose your proxy
server type (Socks4/5, HTTP or HTTPS), enter in the address and port of
your proxy server, and include any login information if your proxy uses
it. (If you’re using BTGuard, for example, you’ll be given a username
and password when you sign up.) Finally, be sure to tick the checkbox
labeled “Use proxy server for peer-to-peer connections”, which is the
whole reason you’re setting it up to begin with.
Anecdotes of folks who’ve been caught downloading copyrighted material
are always a little scary. Despite the legal issues involved, don’t
forget that BitTorrent is only a protocol, and you choose how to use
it. BitTorrent isn’t synonymous with copyright infringement—there are
plenty of legal uses and legal downloads going on with BitTorrent
applications every day.
Whether or not you’re using your BitTorrent client to download
copyrighted materials, no one likes being spied on. If you’re really
serious about protecting your privacy, a proxy solution is probably the
best. There are several drawbacks to proxies, most notably speed
issues, but also difficulty in finding reliable free proxies or the
cost of a service like BTGuard.
PeerGuardian2 is freeware, easy to use, and will never slow down
your downloads. However, it’s much more susceptible to holes than
proxies, since an IP-blocker is only as good as its blacklist, and
those lists have to change and update regularly to keep up with the
If you practice safe(r) BitTorrenting using one of these methods or
an entirely different approach, share your experience in the comments.
Alternately, if you throw caution to the wind, downloading copyrighted
material with impunity, we’d love to hear your thoughts as well.
For those of you who are still new to BitTorrent, check out our beginner and intermediate guides.
Adam Pash is a senior editor for Lifehacker who encourages safe downloading. His special feature Hack Attack appears regularly on Lifehacker. Subscribe to the Hack Attack RSS feed to get new installments in your newsreader.