How to use torrent safely

Hello, my name is Nicolas Cuts. I am an employee of SwitcherryVPN. My new article is entirely devoted to torrents. You will find out what they are, how to use them and what dangers come with uncontrolled downloading of files from torrents, if the user does not take basic precautions.

Nowadays there is hardly an Internet user who has never downloaded files from torrents or at least did not know this option existed. Daily, tens and hundreds of millions of users around the world become members of file-sharing networks. Despite the threats of punishment from authorities, the popularity of torrents in the world is only growing, including in the developed countries of the West. This article will tell you how to download any file from torrents unrestrictedly and safely, and what risks ordinary users who do not take any measures to maintain their anonymity and confidentiality expose themselves to.

What is a torrent and how does it work?

The BitTorrent protocol used in torrent networks was developed in 2001 by American programmer Bram Cohen. He also created the first torrent client with the same name. The BitTorrent protocol was created to facilitate the uploading, downloading and sharing of large files between ordinary Internet users. The main purpose was to speed up the data transfer speed while reducing the load on the servers.

Photo of Bram Cohen, the developer of the BitTorrent™ protocol
Photo of Bram Cohen, the developer of the BitTorrent™ protocol

Currently, the BitTorrent protocol is the most popular protocol used in file-sharing peer-to-peer (abbreviated P2P) networks.

What are torrent networks and how do they work?

A torrent network is a file-sharing peer-to-peer overlay network that connects the computers of ordinary Internet users. Each computer of the torrent network must have a special software installed – a torrent client. All computers of a peer-to-peer torrent network are equal and each of them can simultaneously play the role of both a “client”and a “server”, that is, at the same time download file fragments provided by other participants in the network and share with them already downloaded fragments. A computer that has joined the torrent network is called a peer. There are two types of peers – seeds and leeches.

  • Seeds – these are peers with a completely downloaded file. They are no longer downloading, but only sharing fragments of the file. Seed computers are also called seeders.
  • Leeches – peers with an incompletely downloaded file. They are not only downloading file fragments from other seeds and leeches, but also sharing the already downloaded fragments with other leeches. (However, sometimes, users who have configured their torrent client exclusively for downloading, with a restriction and even a ban on sharing are called leeches) Leech computers are also called leechers.

Together, all peers participating in the sharing of this file are called a swarm.

The exchange of file segments
The exchange of file segments

The image shows the exchange of file segments in a peer-to-peer network with one seed and seven leechers, each segment is conventionally marked with a different color.

To become a member of the torrent network and start downloading the file you need, you need to find and download to your computer the corresponding magnet link or torrent file (a file with the extension *.torrent). Both the torrent file and the magnet link contain the address (URL) of the torrent tracker and the hash-sum – an alphanumeric sequence that uniquely determines which file you need to download. A torrent file can contain the real, full name of the requested file instead of the hash-sum. In addition, the torrent file contains other information about the downloaded file: its size, checksums of the distributed segments, as well as Passkey (password-key for authentication), if the torrent tracker is private (see the relevant section below).

A torrent file or a magnet link is transmitted to the torrent client, which connects to the torrent tracker using the received URL, sends it a hash sum or the full name of the file, reports its IP address and in return receives the IP addresses of other torrent network participants who distribute and download this file. After that, the torrent client connects with other members of the torrent network and begins to exchange file segments, that is, it turns into a leecher. Since the leechers do not have all the fragments of the file, it is obvious that for the normal functioning of the torrent network, at least one seed is needed. If there is not a single seed in this swarm of peers, then such a distribution is called a dead one.

And in general, the more seeds, the sooner files will be downloaded. That is why most private torrent trackers make sure that all users take a certain mandatory part in the distribution (any user has the opportunity to configure their torrent client so that it, basically, only downloads and almost does not distribute). Even if there is a relatively small number of seeds in the torrent network (compared to leechers), the load on the seed’s computer is still not critical, since the vast majority of leechers exchange segments of the downloaded file with each other and only a few use the seed (see the animated image below).

There are two types of torrent networks – centralized and decentralized.

  • Centralized torrent networks, for normal functioning, need so-called torrent trackers – specialized servers that coordinate the work of torrent networks. The main task of the torrent tracker is to help the participants of a torrent network find each other. That is, the torrent tracker provides each participant with the IP addresses of all active peers of the torrent network.
  • Decentralized torrent networks can do without torrent trackers. The IP addresses of the peers are stored in the so-called Distributed Hash Tables (abbrev. DHT). Each participant of the network keeps their own constantly updated list of IP addresses, from which they share information with other participants. In this way, there is a mutual exchange of information among the participants of the torrent network, newly emerged peers are added to the lists and the “dead” ones are removed.

Torrent site – what is this?

Torrent sites are of two types – indexers and torrent trackers – special Internet resources containing lists of files for downloading and their relevant torrent files and/or magnet links.

  • Indexers contain only catalogs of downloaded files with their brief description and provide links to torrent files or magnet links. They do not organize torrent networks and do not coordinate their work;
  • Torrent trackers do not only contain lists of files to download and provide users with torrent files and/or magnet links, but also coordinate the work of torrent networks.
It is important to understand that the downloaded files themselves are not stored on either indexers or torrent trackers, both only help users find one another, and torrent trackers also regulate the operation of torrent networks.

Torrent trackers are divided into open and closed (or private):

  • open torrent trackers help everyone to share files without restrictions, no mandatory registration of participants is required;
  • closed (private) torrent trackers serve only registered users. Private torrent trackers make sure that users do not only download files, but also take an active part in the sharing.

What is a torrent client?

A torrent client is a program installed on a user’s computer designed to work in torrent networks. A torrent file or a magnet link is transmitted to the torrent client, and after processing it, the program begins downloading and distributing file segments in the torrent network. After the segments are fully downloaded, the torrent client “builds” and writes the file to disk.

Why torrents can be dangerous

Torrent networks are no more dangerous than the Internet as a whole. Neither are they any less dangerous. Therefore, torrent users need to know what potential threats and dangers lurk in torrent networks and what precautions should be taken to protect themselves from these threats.

Viruses and malware

Torrent networks are not regulated or controlled by any government authorities or other official structures. So, torrent is an ideal environment for the spread of viruses, spyware, ransomware and other malware. Torrents are networks with zero trust. Always remember that you use torrents at your own risk. Therefore, for safe operation in torrent networks, the following precautions must be observed:

  • Use only proven, long-existing torrent trackers with a large number of users;
  • Always read the comments and reviews of actual users about the downloaded file. However, remember that hackers and malicious users can leave a good comment to encourage you to download a malicious file (this happens on torrent trackers with weak moderation). In addition, organizations fighting piracy can replace the content. For example, you think that you have downloaded a children’s TV series, but in fact it turns out that you have downloaded a pornographic movie;
  • Some torrent trackers check and assess the activity of seeders, highlighting those who constantly distribute high-quality content that is not infected with malware, so, if possible, download files distributed only by verified seeders;
  • Always pay attention to the file extension. For example, most video files have the extension .avi or .mp4, if you are offered to download something disguised to be a video with the extension .exe – you can be sure that this is not a movie, but a malicious program;
  • If you download a game or a software distribution package, always compare their hash sums with those indicated on the manufacturers’ websites, and be sure to check all downloaded files for viruses and other malware;
  • Even if you have a reliable modern antivirus installed, it is advisable to run all programs and games downloaded from a torrent for the first time in the so-called “sandbox” – a software virtual environment that emulates the user’s operating system, for example,  Sandboxie.

Vulnerabilities of torrent networks

Torrent networks are an ideal habitat for hackers, various kinds of scammers and malicious users. As mentioned above, in order for a torrent network to function, all its participants must know each other’s IP addresses. Therefore, if a user does not hide his or her real IP address in one way or another, he or she risks being subjected to a hacker attack, becoming a victim of scammers or falling under the radar of copyright trolls.

So, maintain anonymity and confidentiality when downloading files from torrents!

There are many copyright protection organizations in the world that monitor the work of torrent networks, collecting data about participants. And if a user does not maintain anonymity in one way or another, punitive measures will be applied to them sooner or later.

Copyright and legality

Torrent is officially banned only in Australia and China, Internet service providers in these countries completely block traffic using the BitTorrent protocol. In most other countries, there are no restrictions on the use of a torrent, provided that copyright is respected. That is, you are in no danger if you download exclusively legal content from legal torrent trackers. However, if you start downloading and, especially, distributing licensed content (and any torrent user is more or less involved in the distribution), local legislation may apply severe penalties to you, even imprisonment.

What punishment do users face for illegally downloading licensed content in different countries

  • Japan. Here, copyright violators will face the most severe punishment: up to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $100,000;
  • UK. Also up to 10 years in prison and a fine, depending on the damage caused;
  • USA. According to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (a law on copyright protection in the digital age), Americans face up to 5 years in prison and a fine of up to $150,000 for simply downloading a license file;
  • Germany. Up to 3 years in prison and a fine of 1000 euros for each illegally downloaded license file;
  • Canada. Up to 2 years in prison and a $5,000 fine.

Speed

Most Internet service providers do not prohibit their users from downloading files from torrents. But when they discover that their client uses a torrent, they often dramatically reduce or, at least, severely limit their data transfer speed. Since a VPN encrypts traffic, your Internet provider will not even suspect that you are downloading files from torrents and will not reduce your speed.

How and who can find out that I use a torrent?

If you do not take any precautions, are not concerned about anonymity and privacy, then anyone can find out about your activity in torrent networks. In fact, each participant of the torrent network must know the IP addresses of other participants for data exchange. You can find the list of IP addresses of torrent network users who interact with you on the “Peers” tab or section of your torrent client. Meaning, one simply needs to connect to a file distribution to find out the IP addresses of most of its participants. And anyone can connect (unless the torrent tracker is private). This is what numerous organizations fighting piracy on the Internet use.

To see how easy it is to find out by whom and when license files are downloaded, go to iknowwhatyoudownload.com. If you have downloaded copyrighted content from your actual IP address over the past two months, you will see a detailed list of downloaded files along with the time of download. Of course, if your Internet provider provides its clients with dynamic IP addresses, then all the information may not be yours, but may belong to other users to whom your Internet provider has allocated this IP address at the specified time.

Knowing the IP address of the violator and the time of their activity in the torrent network, the anti-piracy organization sends an official request to the Internet provider, demanding to know the physical address, that is, the home address of the violator, after which it sends a notification to this address about the need to pay a fine.

If you do not take any measures to hide your real IP address, all your actions in torrent networks are completely transparent to both hackers and representatives of law enforcement organizations.

Read about how you can hide your IP address in the blog.

Options for anonymous use of torrents

Here are the most popular ways to hide your activity in torrent networks:

  • using a proxy server;
  • torrenting through the TOR network;
  • using the PeerBlock firewall;
  • VPN.

Proxy

All popular torrent clients can be configured to work with a proxy server. After setting up in torrent networks, instead of your own IP, the IP address of the proxy server will be visible. Meanwhile, the proxy server will have almost no effect on the download speed. But most proxy servers do not encrypt traffic, and your Internet provider will immediately notice that you are using a torrent and will easily determine which file you are downloading. Therefore, it is not recommended to use only a proxy server in torrent networks. Nevertheless, as you will see later, using a proxy in conjunction with a VPN will be an ideal option.

TOR

There are no fundamental obstacles to using TOR network servers as an intermediate link when downloading files from torrents. However, the onion network is designed for anonymous surfing on the Internet and is completely not adapted for transferring large files. The TOR network servers are overloaded, and if you try to redirect torrent traffic through TOR, the download speed may drop almost to zero. In addition, organizations and volunteers that finance and support the operation of the TOR network servers have an extremely negative stand on the very idea of using the onion network for file sharing between users.

PeerBlock

PeerBlock is a free firewall for Windows that blocks Internet traffic originating from certain “suspicious” IP addresses. A list of IP addresses must be compiled in advance. Remember that PeerBlock does not encrypt traffic and does not hide your IP address. What is the use of this program then? Imagine that a certain anti-piracy organization monitors torrent networks from its computers, whose IP addresses are well known to everyone. You add all these IP addresses to the PeerBlock blacklist, after which the firewall will not allow your torrent client to establish connections with computers whose IP addresses are “banned”.

Thanks to this, your IP and your computer will become “invisible” to the computers of the anti-piracy organization. Lists of IP addresses of government and anti-piracy organizations for PeerBlock are distributed for a fee on iblocklist.com. Still, nothing’s stopping law enforcement officers and copyright trolls from using other IP addresses that are not blacklisted to monitor torrent networks, for example, to access torrents from their home computers. Which implies that, in reality, the benefits of PeerBlock are very, very questionable.

VPN

VPN encrypts traffic and simultaneously hides the user’s IP address, replacing it with the IP address of the VPN server. If a VPN provider has powerful high-speed VPN servers with a wide bandwidth, then the speed of downloading files from torrents barely slows down. That is why using a VPN for a torrent will be the best option. We have already written in detail about how to use a VPN for a torrent in this article.

However, you can further enhance your anonymity and safety if you use a proxy server together with a VPN. The fact is that, theoretically, your Internet provider could find out that you are using a torrent and identify the files you are downloading. Actually, the IP address of the VPN server to which you will connect will be recorded in the log files of your Internet provider. And imagine that your Internet provider will visit iknowwhatyoudownload.com, and it will enter this IP address in the Find IP field.

Then the site will give out all the information about your IP-related activity in torrent networks, (if there is any). That is why the ideal option would be to use a proxy server together with a VPN. In this case, only the IP address of the VPN server will be “visible” to your Internet provider, and the IP address of the proxy server, whose existence will never be known by your Internet provider, and therefore its IP address will not connect with you, will “show up” on the torrents.

Recommendations for the safe use of torrents

As mentioned earlier, torrents carry a potential threat, but you can protect yourself if you take the necessary precautions.

Antivirus

Use a reliable modern antivirus and regularly update its antivirus database. Be sure to check all downloaded files for viruses and other malicious programs.

Safe Torrent Sites

Use only safe torrent sites that have no history of distributing malware.

The most popular torrent trackers:

  • The Pirate Bay – the most popular torrent tracker in the world with a multi-million audience. But popularity in this case is a double-edged sword: due to its worldwide fame, this site is banned in dozens of countries around the world. However, you can easily bypass the blocking, even without using a VPN, since The Pirate Bay has at least 10 active mirrors. Here you will find millions of torrent files and magnet links to download content of all kinds: movies, TV shows, music, programs, games, anime, books, magazines, newspapers, etc.
The Pirate Bay home page
The Pirate Bay home page

Pay attention to the skull and crossbones icon next to the magnet link – this is how the site moderators mark users who have repeatedly posted excellent quality content for distribution and were not detected in the distribution of malware. The pink skull is for Trusted users, and the green one is for VIP (most trusted). The last two columns are the number of active seeds and leeches.

Users are arked with skulls of different colors
Users are arked with skulls of different colors
  • YTS – a very popular torrent site, with a huge library of movies and TV series. Excellent moderation, only safe and high-quality content is distributed. There are also games, music, books and magazines.
Popular torrent site YTS
Popular torrent site YTS
  • 1137x – one of the most popular torrent trackers in the world. You can find anything. The best alternative to The Pirate Bay.
1337Х - the best alternative to Pirate Bay
1337Х – the best alternative to Pirate Bay
  • Torrent Downloads – old, popular torrent tracker. A multimillion database of movies, music, TV series, anime, books, programs and games.
Torrent downloads page
Torrent downloads page
  • Torrentz2 – large selection of games, movies, music, TV series.
Torrentz2 service
Torrentz2 service
  • EZTV – the best selection of TV shows.
EZTV search page
EZTV search page
  • LimeTorrents – multimillion database of movies, TV series, music, anime, programs and games. LimeTorrents is not a torrent tracker, but an indexer, torrent files and magnet links on this site are taken from third-party torrent trackers.
LimeTorrents is an indexer
LimeTorrents is an indexer
  • TorLock – another very popular torrent tracker. Its database mainly includes movies and TV series.
TorLock is a good torrent for downloading movies and TV series
TorLock is a good torrent for downloading movies and TV series
  • RARBG – torrent tracker with a large database of movies, TV series, music, programs and games.
RARBG is one of the most visited torrent sites
RARBG is one of the most visited torrent sites
  • Kickass Torrents – popular and old torrent tracker with a large number of active users.
Kickass Torrents page
Kickass Torrents page

Safe torrents

Torrents with a large number of verified participants (those who have never been seen spreading malware) can be considered safe. Before downloading a file, always read the comments and reviews of users who have already downloaded and checked this file. Also pay attention to the number of seeds – the more seeders participating in the distribution, the faster the file download.

Legal torrents

In present-day realities, the word “torrent” has become almost synonymous with the word “piracy”. Actually, there are also torrent trackers that distribute exclusively legal content: free software, as well as movies, music, books and magazines for which the copyright has expired.

Legal site Legit Torrents
Legal site Legit Torrents

Here are the most popular ones:

  • Internet Archive – large collection of old books, magazines, newspapers, films, music, videos and audio materials. Everything can be downloaded directly, or you can also use a torrent;
  • Legit Torrents – collection of free software, books, games, movies and music;
  • Public Domain Torrents – collection of classic movies;
  • Vuze StudioHD – free videos;
  • Jamendo – music torrent.

Safe torrent clients

There are many torrent clients. Most of them have an intuitive interface and work perfectly with the default settings that provide a good level of safety. In this article “How to use a VPN for a torrent” <!– Ссылку сюда –> we already wrote on how to configure torrent clients to work together with a VPN so that downloading files from torrents becomes as safe as possible.

The most popular torrent clients

  • BitTorrent – the oldest torrent client with a simple interface. The author of the program is Bram Cohen, the developer of the BitTorrent protocol. The program is available for Windows, MacOS and Android. You can download it from the official website of BitTorrent;
BitTorrent - popular torrent client
BitTorrent – popular torrent client
  • μTorrent (or uTorrent) – currently, the most popular torrent client. Allows you to start watching a video file directly in the program window immediately after the download starts, without waiting for the download to finish. The free version contains ad blocks that an experienced user can remove from the interface by changing the basic settings. Versions of the program can run on Windows, MacOS, Linux and Android. The program can be downloaded from the official website;
Legal torrent site with a free version
Legal torrent site with a free version
  • qBittorrent – free open source torrent client. In terms of functionality, it is not inferior to μTorrent and is gradually becoming the most popular in the world. It can run on Windows, Linux, MacOS, OS/2 and FreeBSD. The program’s official website: qbittorrent.org;
qBittorrent it is just as functional as μTorrent
qBittorrent it is just as functional as μTorrent
  • Vuze – free torrent client. It is written in the Java language, so it can work on any OS where a Java virtual machine is installed. A distinctive feature of this torrent client is its built-in browser. You can search and download torrent files from the Internet directly in the program window! Distributed from the official website vuze.com;
Vuze is free torrent client
Vuze is free torrent client
  • Transmission – very simple free torrent client with open source code. Included in the Linux-based operating systems. It can also work on Windows. You can find the program on the official website of the developer transmissionbt.com.
Transmission is a free torrent client with a simple interface
Transmission is a free torrent client with a simple interface

FAQ

1.Who are copyright trolls?

1.Who are copyright trolls?

Copyright trolls are various legal organizations and their representatives who search for copyright infringers in torrent networks, identifying them by IP. Having found the violator, they find out the exact home address from the violator’s Internet provider and send a mail notification to their house with a demand to pay a fine. In case of refusal, they begin to blackmail the violator, threatening to initiate a court case against him. Copyright trolling is widespread in the EU countries, especially in Germany.

2.How to ensure the maximum download speed from a torrent?

2.How to ensure the maximum download speed from a torrent?

Most Internet service providers, having discovered that their client uses a torrent, almost always begin to limit the client’s Internet speed. To prevent this from happening, you need to use any technology that encrypts torrent traffic. It is best to use a VPN and find a good VPN provider that has powerful high-speed servers, then the download speed will be close to the maximum. Keep in mind that some VPN providers do not approve and even prohibit their clients from downloading content from torrents. Therefore, before choosing your VPN provider, ask if it allows downloading files from torrents at all, and if it does, does it limit the download speed?

3.Does a VPN provide 100% protection when downloading torrent files?

3.Does a VPN provide 100% protection when downloading torrent files?

A VPN will only provide anonymity and privacy, but it will not protect you from viruses and other malware that you can potentially download from a torrent. Therefore, it is necessary to use a good antivirus program together with a VPN.

4.What happens if you download files from torrents without using a VPN or other technologies that provide anonymity?

4.What happens if you download files from torrents without using a VPN or other technologies that provide anonymity?

If you live or are currently located in a law-based state where copyright infringement is a serious crime, then sanctions and punitive measures will inevitably follow illegal downloading of licensed content. The lightest punishment will involve shutting down your Internet. But, it is possible that you will be fined a large sum, and if the copyright holders decide to really let you have it, there is a chance that in addition to the fine, you will receive an actual prison sentence.

Author: Nicolas Cuts

Product Managers at SwitcherryVPN. Have 5 years background in management and marketing. I never stop learning!

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