Disclaimer: The author of this article does not advocate for the infringement of copyright, though he does believe its abolition would result in a creative and artistic utopia.
For many, their first torrenting experience is a kind of revelation about the power of the internet. Having heard of ThePirateBay through hushed whispers in the schoolyard, they quickly install a sketchy torrent application (now with bonus crypto-miners) and immediately get to downloading the latest 1080p.h265.HDRip of Spider-Man 3. Unlike centralised sources hosting such files on their own servers, peer-to-peer file-sharing networks are inherently difficult to shut down, despite being in the crosshairs of large media conglomerates seeking to enforce their intellectual property rights for decades.
A particularly insidious tactic employed by ‘copyright trolls’ in the modern day is to pressure the middlemen in any network, like internet service providers, to police the activity of users on their behalf. It’s not uncommon these days to hear of film and video game publishers who upload a marked copy of their own media onto public trackers, like ThePirateBay, and gather the IP addresses of those who download it. Within a couple of weeks, a cease-and-desist letter shows up at your home, or in the worst-case scenario, an originating process for legal proceedings. Even if these corporations don’t resort to baiting pirates themselves, it’s easy enough to scrape a list of IP addresses from existing torrents by monitoring the ‘peers’ to a file at any given point.
To demonstrate how simple this detective work can be, the website ‘I Know What You Download’ actively tracks the peers to a list of 1.5 million torrents and makes their records publicly available online. All you’d need to do is to look up an IP Address to find the full history of their torrent activity. Of course, the first thing I did when discovering this resource was to log on to campus WiFi and snoop into what USyd students (and potentially staff) were torrenting in the background while sitting in classes or studying at the library. The results, while not entirely surprising, should raise some alarm bells about the digital OPSEC of your average USyd attendee.
It’s mostly porn. Overwhelmingly, the activity demonstrated that the vast majority of torrent traffic through the USyd campus network was for large HD porn videos, sometimes up to 10GB in size. In fact, the website has realised that USyd’s IP address downloads so much porn that it’s even automatically categorised the network with the tag ‘likes porn’. As to why anyone would want to have several 10GB porn videos on their hard drive, and choose to torrent them through the University network, I cannot say. Other categories that saw significant traffic were video games, with someone downloading a full 50GB repack of Far Cry 6 just last week, and art house films such as the Criterion Collection edition of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me.
Am I trying to be a copyright narc for pointing all of this out? Absolutely not – though I do think that pirating Ubisoft games is a waste of anyone’s bandwidth, even the University’s. But I must imagine that this sort of activity, which is so easily detectable by a third-party source, would be even simpler for the University’s tech department. Moreover, whilst the website I visited couldn’t decipher the individual student identification numbers responsible for downloading each torrent, my understanding is that this too would be a trivial challenge for the University to figure out.
However, if you simply must find a way of downloading strictly legal files for completely above-ground and (I stress again) strictly legal purposes, it’s perhaps about time to learn some privacy practices to elude the prying eyes of network administrators. First, look for what you need on online archival sites or blogs, like archive.org. Despite being centralised, these websites are ironically much more difficult for admins to pinpoint specific downloaders under, unless they are compelled to release their records – if they keep them at all. For even more security, consider tunnelling through a VPN, or even using the Tor browser. Whilst admins will be able to see spikes in traffic or the fact you’re using Tor, the encryption afforded by these avenues means it will be nigh-impossible to decipher the content of the data passed through. Further, you could redirect the actual downloading of the torrent off a network by investing in a seedbox, which is a high-bandwidth remote server accessible through SSH FTP. Finally, you may even choose to investigate the very mysterious world of private torrent trackers (which this author knows nothing about).
Stay safe out there, USyd.