Big Brother is Watching You Watch Game of Thrones: New Study Shows That BitTorrent Users Are Monitored and Logged Within Hours

Tuesday, September 4, 2012 by Jonathan Ambrose

A recent study from UK’s University of Birmingham suggests that users of BitTorrent clients to share files are likely to be monitored, with those downloading or sharing the most popular content being observed and recorded within hours.

BitTorrent is widely-used file sharing protocol that allows users to download files from multiple users at once. While it has legitimate uses, it is, perhaps overwhelmingly, used illegally to obtain copyrighted material.

The study found that those downloading one of the 100 most popular files  are likely to be “logged by a monitoring firm within three hours.”

The study was carried out using software that behaved like a BitTorrent client and logged the connections made to it. While previous studies had already explored the process of indirect monitoring (where indirect indications of sharing activity are considered), the Birmingham study was the first to observe and quantify direct monitoring (in which the observer directly connects with users to determine their activity).

The study found that those downloading one of the 100 most popular files  are likely to be “logged by a monitoring firm within three hours.” Those downloading less popular files were still monitored, but less frequently, suggesting that the observers “allocate resources according to the popularity of the content they monitor.”

The research was able to implicate 10 different firms monitoring. While some were identified as copyright enforcement organizations, six of the firms could not be identified, and their exact reasons for collecting the data are unknown. Some firms, however, have been accused of selling the information to copyright holders for marketing purposes.

The researchers also found that the “blocklists” used by BitTorrent users to exclude peers suspected of monitoring to avoid detection were ineffective, missing 31% of the peers they identified as monitors. The study helpfully suggests that BitTorrent users should “not rely solely on such speculative blocklists to protect their privacy, and should instead combine them with blocklists based on empirical research . . . .”

IP addresses collected by monitoring firms have in the past been used to determine the physical location of file sharers, which are in turn the basis for cease and desist letters and settlement offers. However, there is some doubt about the use of these IP addresses as the sole basis for copyright infringement claims in court, as the information only pertains to a certain location, rather than any specific user. Regardless of the future legal implications, however, the study is surely of great interest to copyright holders seeking to enforce infringement, users hoping to avoid detection, and  researchers watching from the sidelines.