Many people have reported getting notices from their internet service providers after downloading files using BitTorent. How does your ISP know? It’s all in how BitTorrent works. BitTorrent is a lot less anonymous than it might seem at a glance.
An internet download involves receiving data from a remote server. Aside from the initial request you send out to get the file, most downloads are a one-way street. You receive the data from a central server, and you don’t have to send out something from your server. Loading up web pages, watching videos online, and downloading games on Steam all work in this way.
However, if too many IP addresses download from the same server at the same time, it may get clogged and cause a dip in download speed.
Torrents differ from typical internet downloads because they follow a peer-to-peer protocol. A torrent “swarm” is a group of IP addresses simultaneously downloading and uploading a file. Instead of just downloading a file from a server somewhere, you also upload parts of it to other people. Because of this constant process of exchange, a file associated with a torrent often downloads significantly faster than a standard download.
BitTorrent is frequently used for piracy. However, there are many legitimate uses for torrenting. Because they can be paused, resumed, and split up into smaller parts, they’re ideal for downloading large files such as games, software, plugin packs, and updates. They’re also a common distribution method for free music and videos.
Your internet service provider can’t instantly tell if you’re using BitTorrent, nor can they tell what you’re downloading on it. Most torrent clients have some form of encryption, which makes it harder for ISPs (and your home router) to pin down that BitTorrent traffic. However, there are some ways they can tell that you’re using BitTorrent to download something.
Downloading torrents exhibits some very obvious usage patterns, such as multiple concurrent upload streams and many different TCP (transmission control protocol) connections, because you’re communicating with many IPs at the same time. If your ISP is actively trying to detect torrent use, they will most likely be able to tell.
Another way they can do it is by contracting third-parties to monitor groups of torrents, and check if an IP address under them shows up on the list of users on that swarm.
However, most ISPs don’t have a direct interest in stopping you from using torrents. The main reason they would pay attention is that torrents consume a lot of bandwidth, but with the rise of high-speed wired connections, this is less of a problem than it used to be. However, some providers such as WiFi ISPs and mobile networks may throttle (slow) your connection if you download large files using torrents.
So if ISPs don’t care that you’re using their service to download files using BitTorrent, why do people get letters telling them to stop using it?
If you’re downloading a torrent, you can see every IP address you’re connected to. That’s why many media companies and large copyright holders join the swarm of popular torrents of their content that’s been pirated. They then extract lists of IP addresses that they know are downloading the file, and sort these lists by ISP.
They can then send notices to internet service providers that these IP addresses under them are downloading pirated material. Your ISP then sends a notification to you, telling you that they know you’re using BitTorrent and asking you to stop pirating. If you repeatedly do it, your internet may get cut off or worse; the copyright owner may sue you. This is especially true if a media conglomerate owns your ISP.
There is little to no risk of getting one of these letters if all of the content you download using torrents is legal. Many legitimate software launchers use a torrent protocol to make downloading their software updates faster.
VPNs or Virtual Private Networks allow you to connect to another network online remotely. When you connect to a VPN, your IP address and location are obfuscated behind the network you’re connected to. Many people use VPNs to browse the internet more securely or to access region-locked content.
When you download a torrent via a VPN, it appears as if the new IP address is the peer. However, not all VPNs are created equal. Free VPNs usually are extremely slow and have inconsistent connections, making them unreliable for downloading large files. A paid VPN offers much better security, and speeds are often close to your actual internet connection plan.
You should also note that for most BitTorrent clients, torrents continue to upload or “seed” even after you’re done downloading the file. If you disconnect from your VPN before you stop the torrent from seeding, your actual IP address may appear on the list of peers.