Though virtually any experienced P2P user would tell you that ensuring anonymity while torrenting is paramount, some choose to not use such technology. A VPN is considered essential when using a BitTorrent client to upload and download.
There are plenty of articles enumerating the best VPN providers for torrent users, but information on what actually happens if you torrent without a VPN is sparse and inconsistent.
We'll take an in-depth look at the ways a VPN can protect you on a variety of fronts while torrenting. Then, we'll wrap up with a discussion of potential legal penalties along with how P2P users are ultimately identified, subpoenaed, and fined.
Security Risks of Torrenting
The BitTorrent protocol was not designed with security in mind. Originally used by research institutions, it slowly turned into a burgeoning industry. There are now countless sites that host torrents for just about every type of digital content imaginable, legal or not.
In this section, we'll take a look at the non-legal risks of torrenting without a VPN. Consequences that are not connected to the authorities, but are still a threat to your online security.
If you are not using a VPN, your ISP can see your torrenting activity and everything else you do online. They will be able to see what you're doing, log your online activity, and archive it.
Typically buried in initial signup agreements, most ISPs have a clause stating that they have the right to “throttle” your speeds if you're caught using BitTorrent extensively.
Especially if you just use the default ports to torrent, there's a high chance your ISP will pick up on this fact and slow down your Internet speeds in general, regardless of what tier of Internet plan you chose.
A little-discussed but major issue that continues to plague the P2P community is client hijacking. Some measures have been taken against this by the developers of major clients, such as verifying the hashes of blocks as they're downloaded. However, every torrent client has had a “zero-day vulnerability” at one point or another.
Keep in mind that using a VPN is not a guarantee that this won't happen. However, it adds a good bit of complexity to the network layer, making a hostile takeover of your computer much less likely. Also note that this malicious behavior is almost exclusively seen on public trackers.
Denial of Service Attacks
A “Denial of Service” attack is when a malicious actor does something that hampers your ability to use a service. In this case, the service would be BitTorrent. When you download a torrent, a lot goes on in the background. You join a “swarm” of users, which is prominently displayed by most major clients.
Unfortunately, this means that every other person viewing the torrent has the ability to see your IP address, as well. Even when there's no clear motive other than mischief, “Distributed Denial of Service” (DDoS) attacks are fairly common against users of public trackers. There are numerous ways this can be accomplished, but the easiest way is simply a flood of packets from various IP addresses that is designed to inundate your connection, ultimately kicking you offline.
The only reason this is possible is that your home connection is likely far less powerful than a data center connection. The average home connection speed around the world is just shy of 50 Mbps, which is dwarfed by Tier 1 data center server speeds.
Legal Penalties for Torrenting
Of course, the consequences of getting caught torrenting vary widely by country. Some countries also have criminal laws against downloading copyrighted materials but do not enforce them. Interestingly, the United States is a major outlier, making non-commercial copyright infringement a civil matter rather than a criminal one.
If you're located in a country where the open sharing of copyrighted material is actively prosecuted in criminal or civil courts, here are some of the legal dangers you could face.
“Copyright Troll” is a pejorative term used to describe teams of unscrupulous lawyers who actively target small-time BitTorrent users. The way they do it is quite simple. They simply “sit” in swarms on torrents of recently released or highly profitable copyrighted material. They log upload and download times, amounts, and speeds of each IP address connected.
Be alert especially when using public trackers, since those are virtually guaranteed to have these types of people present. If you aren't using a VPN, your home IP address will be exposed to Copyright Trolls, allowing them to obtain a subpoena for your personal information.
The owner of the Internet account then receives a letter detailing what they have been caught unlawfully sharing and an offer of settlement. The settlement amount is usually steep but far less than it would end up being in court. Users are given little choice other than to pay up.
Depending on the country where you are and the nature of the material you're torrenting, police may become involved. Especially for countries where it is a criminal matter, police often have “crackdowns” where they sweep popular torrents for IP addresses from their country and then subpoena ISPs in a similar manner to Copyright Trolls.
Without a VPN, you're left to fend for yourself in court. Since none of your personal information is protected during transmission, the police would have full access. Though very rare, you could even face time in jail, though in the vast majority of the world, users will simply see a steep fine.
How a VPN While Torrenting Helps
You've now seen a few of the many legal and extra-legal consequences that P2P users could potentially face. It may seem as though the situation is dire, but common sense precautions can save any torrent fan from a world of hurt.
First, remember the adage, “if you're not paying for the product, you are the product”. This is especially true with VPNs. barring small trial offers from major providers, many completely free VPNs ironically make money by data harvesting, the exact problem many are trying to avoid by using them.
Assuming you've chosen a trusted VPN with servers that don't log any personal information, there are two main ways that a good VPN provider could assist you in the long run.
Your IP Address Changes
As soon as you've securely connected to a VPN, your public-facing IP address will be different. This is the address that will show up in “swarms” to police and Copyright Trolls. If a subpoena is initiated, the VPN company will get a letter alleging copyright infringement with a demand to know your identity.
However, if it is indeed a “no logging” VPN service, they can honestly tell the requesting entity that they don't have that information. For the vast majority of petty cases, that's the end of it!
Fully Encrypted Uploads/Downloads
The other major advantage of using a trusted VPN with torrents is that all data sent and received is fully encrypted. Some providers even offer a “split-tunnel”, allowing you to only send P2P traffic through the VPN provider if you elect to do so. This means that you can stop worrying about whether your ISP is spying on your Internet activities.
Remember, when you're connected to a VPN, your ISP can only see that you have indeed connected to a certain IP address and that bandwidth is being used. Beyond that, all data would be garbled and completely useless!
Examples of reliable VPN providers
Your main takeaway from this article is hopefully not that torrenting is simply too dangerous. Just like many other activities, it can be perfectly safe when the proper procedures are followed.
In short, don't skimp on paying for a good VPN provider, ensure it's always on when your BitTorrent software is downloading, and the chances of experiencing any significant issue are very low.