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With the influx of new p2p movie streaming apps like Popcorn Time, and a system for copyright infringement notices about to begin in the UK, I thought it might an apt time to remind you of some basic torrenting safety guidelines. I’m not going to be preachy and pretend I don’t know what you use torrents for, but I am going to ask that you stay safe regardless – both legally, and from a computing perspective. No one wants to end up in prison or handed a hefty fine.

Not sure what torrents are? Read our free guide to torrents. Please don’t ask me in the comments what the best torrent sites are or beg for private tracker invites. I don’t condone piracy of any kind, and you’ll waste my time banning you.

The Truth About Popcorn Time, Flixtor, Zona (And So On…)

Popcorn Time set the Internet alight when it was released earlier this year: it was a better experience than Netflix, with a wider selection of all the movies and TV shows you could possibly want, and completely free.

The original project was shut down rather quickly, but with the code being open source numerous forks were made and clones developed. However, some users were completely ignorant of where the content actually came from. There is after all, no indication in the app itself of anything illegal (newer clones have added a warning to the download page) – it looks just like a streaming service, with nice DVD covers and a great looking interface. Even users who were aware that the files were obviously of dubious legal origin weren’t necessarily also aware of the underlying technology, believing it to work like any other streaming Internet site.

The truth is that the app itself (and all the clones) are based entirely on torrents. When users stream media, the app downloads a torrent file, joins the swarm, and immediately seeds the file back out to everyone else. From the perspective of anti-p2p organizations and the companies hired to monitor torrents, this is no different to anyone heading over to the PirateBay and downloading it using a traditional torrent client. Popcorn Time is a just very pretty media index and torrent client in one package.

popocorntime

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Note: since the original project was taken down, there has a been a bit of controversy over the Time4Popcorn clone, including possible attack vectors for malware (though no evidence of it being used for such yet) and the use of a centralised server that could be subverted. Please consider using the Get-Popcorn clone instead.

My point is: don’t be under the illusion that you’re protected simply because you’re using these apps to stream content instead of more directly using a torrent client. It is exactly the same thing underneath with a pretty interface on top, so every precaution you should take when downloading a torrent still applies when using this new breed of streaming applications – namely….

Use A VPN

The very nature of peer-to-peer torrent technology means that everyone who attempts to download a file is given a list of everyone else doing the same: you become both the downloader, and uploader. Even if you’ve set your client to never upload, you’ll still be on the list as a peer.

It should therefore be obvious that anti-p2p organizations could do the same thing to figure out who is downloading a specific file. Companies are paid to monitor specific torrents by the copyright owners, which they do by downloading it themselves, checking the swarm, and keeping a record of every IP address they see. Your IP address is cross-checked against a known list of ISPs. Your ISP is contacted, and they may be forced to pass on the details of the customer associated with an IP at a specific date and time, or asked to take action themselves (as is the case in America and soon also the UK, sending warning letters to infringing subscribers). Fines, and possible disconnection await repeat infringers.

To clarify the situation in the UK: the warning letters will not have any action taken, and will simply stop after 4 have been sent. But still – do you want to be on that list? Do you really want your ISP to know you were downloading “Big and Busty BDSM Babes” while the country is on a moral crusade?

Using a VPN is the only safe way of having any contact with torrents, period. Tunnel your connection through a torrent-friendly VPN that won’t keep records of who was using the service and when. This video from CyberGhost VPN explains the concepts.

Good VPNs cost money. Yes, you can find free VPNs suitable for 5 minutes of privacy when using public Wi-Fi in an Internet cafe, but they are as good as nothing when it comes to torrenting. We maintain a list of best VPNs here, but not all of them are torrent friendly. Private Internet Access is the most commonly recommended for p2p users, though this isn’t a personal endorsement as I’ve never used them. When purchased yearly through PIA, a VPN can cost as little as $3.33 per month.

Seedboxes

Seedboxes are a private computer rented from someone else: that machine, and therefore the IP address of that other machine does the downloading instead of you. Originally designed to make seeding of torrents easier without requiring your machine to be on 24/7, they also have the benefit of placing you one step away from legal implications. You’re provided with a remote management interface, and an FTP login so you can grab the completed downloads without using the torrent protocol. For those without legal concerns, Seedboxes are also useful to get around traffic shaping or networks where the torrent protocol is completely blocked.

This spreadsheet maintained by the Reddit r/seedboxes community is a comprehensive list of seedbox providers. Prices range from about $15 for a good level of service, though cheaper plans can be found. Many heavy users will combine a Seedbox and  VPN for the ultimate in privacy.

Peerblock / Peerguardian Doesn’t Do Anything

Peerblock is like a firewall against the bad guys. The app maintains lists of “bad IP” addresses belonging to anti-p2p organisations, universities, law enforcement agencies, etc. – and prevents those from connecting to your machine. In theory, this will stop you from being added to their lists. In reality, they don’t need to actually connect to your machine in order to see you’re in the torrent swarm and actively downloading/uploading a file; the lists often prevent useful peers from seeding a file to you because their IP happens to be in a block owned by a certain company or university. The app provides a false sense of security and will not provide any protection when using torrents.

Don’t use it.

peerblock6

 

Avoid Software: Malware Risks

It is possible to embed malware inside music and movie files, but it’s highly unlikely and only works on specific media players. Sticking to standard codecs like AVI and MKV, and using an up-to-date version of VLC to play movie files for instance, will mitigate the chances of contracting malware. Windows Media Player on the other hand is most commonly targeted since it’s so badly coded and the default for many users.

Still, you’re relatively safe when downloading movies and music from the Internet, at least from a malware perspective. This doesn’t include “fake” movies, which are can be an executable file renamed to give the impression it’s a movie.

Software and games on the other hand are by their nature, executable files, and as such can contain executable malware code. If you absolutely must download software or games, don’t be the first: wait until it has a large number of completed downloads and comments reporting safety. Even then, safety isn’t guaranteed, but at least you’ve had the benefit of other users testing it first.

Sadly, virus protection suites can’t be relied upon: most virus scanners report false positives on nearly every “keygen” program out there, which are packed with games and software to generate useable licence keys or crack the software. There is no safe way to run pirated software.

The safest option then, is to steer clear entirely of software and game downloads. If you don’t mind waiting, Steam sales will net you bargains 5 Ways To Make Sure You Get The Best Deals On Steam Games 5 Ways To Make Sure You Get The Best Deals On Steam Games Steam is known for being super convenient for managing one’s video game library, and it’s also useful in a few other ways, but did you know that with a bit of effort you can obtain... Read More  on gaming titles year or two old, and there’s almost always a decent open source or cheaper alternative to popular software titles 14 Free & Open Source Alternatives For Paid Software 14 Free & Open Source Alternatives For Paid Software Don't waste money on software for personal use! Not only do free alternatives exist, they most likely offer all the features you need and may be easier and safer to use. Read More .

I don’t condone downloading copyright materials, nor can I make any guarantee you won’t get in trouble even after following all this advice – but if you’re going to anyway, these tips are going to give you the best chance of not getting in trouble.

Do you have any other tips you think I’ve missed? Have you ever received letters from your ISP for using torrents?

 

  1. doug post
    August 10, 2016 at 10:50 pm

    No one should be downloading without using some type of VPN service. The best way to hide you IP and download anonymously is by using a VPN service. Free ones are just junk.... you get what you pay for. Seriously there are plenty of VPN services out there and its really not that expensive. If you are downloading and do not want you location or IP to be tracked or logged use a good VPN. I have tried about 3 services and it took me about a month to figure out which one worked best... at least for me. I use SafetyIP.com and I have tried guys like PureVPN and PIA just didnt work out for me. I like have a service thats got a no logging policy and a kill switch... cause I can tell you I had a service that didnt have a kill switch and that was no good. I was downloading files over night and when I came to check I was not connected to the VPN and still was downloading... so I was fully exposed. So the guys I use now has a kill switch. Basically disconnects your internet connection if you some how get disconnected from the VPN. just my 2 cents

  2. nerelonline
    March 5, 2016 at 6:12 pm

    Fully agree with the recommendation to use Private Internet Access as a way to use Popcorn Time safely! I've been using Private Internet Access (PIA) for years and remain very satisfied.

    Anyone twitchy about using a USA-based VPN provider (PIA is based in the US) could also consider ExpressVPN (an excellent VPN but a little pricey).

    Good discussion here on Popcorn Time VPNs, http://www.cogipas.com/anonymous-torrenting/popcorn-time-vpn-recommendations/

    On a final note, as good as this MakeUseof article was in mid-2014, it is worth pointing out that the techniques it outlines are just as solid now (2016) for Popcorn Time as well as for P*rn Time (an adult Popcorn Time) and Torrents Time (a sort of web browser-based Popcorn Time). Stay safe & private people!

  3. Jakilope
    March 2, 2016 at 5:33 pm

    Betternet is a good free VPN

  4. pete
    February 12, 2016 at 11:24 pm

    I don’t condone downloading copyright materials, nor can I make any guarantee you won’t get in trouble even after following all this advice – but if you’re going to anyway, these tips are going to give you the best chance of not getting in trouble.

    --what a contradiction

  5. Name
    January 11, 2016 at 3:23 pm

    PIA is crap beacuase it is based in the infamous United Stasi of AmeriKKKa

    BY USING THIS WEBSITE AND/OR SERVICES, YOU AGREE THAT YOU CONSENT TO THIS PRIVACY POLICY AND ANY CHANGES HERETO IN THE FUTURE. YOU AGREE THAT PRIVATEINTERNETACCESS.COM MAY MAKE CHANGES TO THIS PRIVACY POLICY AT ANY TIME WITHOUT ANY GIVEN NOTICE AT ITS DISCRETION.

  6. Sweety
    December 1, 2015 at 7:31 pm

    Don' use it. I have Verizon fios and one of my roommate used Popcorn times for movie. And guess what? I got goddamn Notice from Verizon. It's illegal.

  7. Wayne Padgett
    October 23, 2015 at 3:59 pm

    Popcorn Time is the best but it's still fairly new considering all these Torrent sites out there that are going through lawsuits of some kind. It may take a while. There will be a time when they will seek out Popcorn Time for a lawsuit for closure just like all File Sharing/Torrent sites. Popcorn Time is an illegal service just like any and all File Sharing/Torrent sites. Any company by law that hosts a service for illegal activity is responsible for that illegal active/service even if it's not through them directly. It wouldn't be illegal if it wasn't made illegal. Using such service without a proper VPN especially one that keeps no logs you aren't safe and in fact you could be one of the few recipients that gets caught and jailed and fined for using such service. Your life will change that's for sure. People all over the world are caught and jailed from Torrenting it's just not broadcast. You may not think you will be the one, but if you live in places around the world that frown on File Sharing you are at a high risk such places like the United Stated where the MPAA resides and tracks such services. You better have no log carrying VPN or you are at a risk. No Peer Block/Peer Guardian does nothing but slow down your downloads. It doesn't prevent your IP or DNS from exploding all over torrent trackers. Be smart people either don't use such services and take the risk you could be a victim of pirateering or get yourself a VPN that keeps no logs like Private Internet Access it's the best.

  8. Esther Alexander
    October 2, 2015 at 4:09 am

    popcorn time is the BEST! It works and its so easy! just simply THE best!

  9. Alex Bui
    September 13, 2015 at 11:22 pm

    Remember everyone. When you are taking in someone else's model (an understanding of how something works) you are also taking in their agenda (someone's goal.) This guy's goal might be to improve the use of Netflix, Amazon TV, etc. So be careful when you take in someone's models! (From Collage psychology class.)
    P.S. I'm 11 years old ????

    • James Bruce
      September 14, 2015 at 7:07 am

      In this in response to the article or someone else's comment? I have no idea what you're trying to say.

  10. Gaz Jones
    July 7, 2015 at 4:41 am

    provides a false sense of security and will not provide any protection when using torrents.

    Wrong... completely and utterly wrong.

    In order for a torrent client to list an IP address on who is connected to the torrent, they need to be able to connect to that IP address.

    Ever wonder when a torrent has literally thousands of peers, but the list only shows a couple of hundred IP addresses? That's because those machines are turned off.

    You need to be able to send and receive a packet from said IP address before it is being listed in the client. It's simple networking. The torrent client itself doesn't automatically know who has been downloading a torrent, and the magnet link/ torrent file doesn't contain any information about who is downloading it.

    Peerblock does block those IP addresses (which you have implied) but what you are saying is that they don't need to connect to see you downloading it? This is just outright incorrect.

    Please, do some research on basic networking before spreading misinformation.

    • Gaz Jones
      July 7, 2015 at 4:43 am

      Edit: Not to mention, a letter doesn't come through from your ISP unless you have been uploading. This is where the loopholes come in.

      You can technically download a torrent, and not get into trouble. But the moment you upload data, that's when you can get into trouble.

      If these firms cannot connect to you, they cannot prove if you are uploading or not. Plausible Deniability which will always rule in your favour.

    • James Bruce
      July 7, 2015 at 7:14 am

      A common misconception that used to be true for older peer-to-peer networks, but not BitTorrent. Your IP address is disclosed to everyone on the tracker, whether or not they are able to directly connect to you. You connect to the swarm, your IP address is added to the list, and it's this list which IP protection companies work from - whether or not they can connect to you. Not seeding back is also irrelevant: downloading is illegal, period. People have been caught while using PeerBlock, and if you did your research on the torrent protocol specifically you would understand why.

      If you wish to continue believing PeerGuardian/PeerBlock will keep you safe, then go ahead. Chances are you won't be caught anyway, but you might be, and that program will not have done anything for you.

      Plausible deniability is not a legal recourse, as numerous cases have been shown. This is why it's recommended to not share your wifi: you ARE responsible for anything that occurs on it.

      If you'd like to continue arguing about it, do so on Reddit: https://www.reddit.com/r/torrents/comments/17gold

  11. Joe ScHmoe
    April 16, 2015 at 10:22 am

    I use BTGuard it is a proxy, my IP shows me as being in Canada, I've d/l'd 100's of movies and never got the "notice" till I used popcorn time.
    It's made for utorrent nuf said.

  12. wefewff
    April 3, 2015 at 7:41 pm

    Popcorn time uses torrent?

    *le gasp*

  13. Curtis
    December 28, 2014 at 10:11 am

    Safest way? Sites like Bitport.io and similar... You download to the cloud and you can play it online... You do not have to save anything to your pc, everything is in your online library...

  14. Peter
    December 14, 2014 at 6:35 pm

    I use DeepFreeze and open popcorn time in a sandbox so now worryabout malware. Wish their new VPN service worked
    Luckly I'm using both right now cause there's a whole mess of scripts loading on this page. I had to turn off NoScript just to post

  15. jeff
    December 12, 2014 at 9:50 pm

    I connected with Popcorn Time once and was bombarded with Malware. Popcorn Time is one dirty site.

    • James Bruce
      December 13, 2014 at 5:07 pm

      Which one? There are hundreds of copy-cat sites.

      "popcorntime.io" is the only official source, and it certainly doesn't distribute any malware.

  16. Andy R
    June 9, 2014 at 9:09 am

    I use 'Usenet'. No Problem!

    • jason
      November 3, 2014 at 7:09 pm

      I have been trying to make the leap over to usenet. Currently newshosting. They have a decent browser, but it can still be challenging to find certain things. I end up with a lot more bogus files as well because there is no commenting etc. If anyone has any advice in that area please let me know.

  17. juniormint
    June 6, 2014 at 10:57 pm

    I did get a letter from my ISP for illegally download content (rightly earned, I'm ashamed to admit). I had been using Peerblock and wrongly assumed I was protected. My ISP limited my internet access and I was a bit freaked out because I had to call them to get my service completely restored. I had read online what to say, but when I called, the nice young man from my ISP advised me to change my account password because I had been "hacked" and "someone" was using my account for nefarious purposes. *He* apologized to *me!* My service was restored. However, I learned my lesson and I'm walking the straight and narrow now.

  18. bofo
    June 5, 2014 at 10:22 pm

    anonymous free proxy - preferably in a country that doesn't play nice with hollywood (middle east/russia/china/south america/africa)

  19. jackB
    June 5, 2014 at 10:19 pm

    Would the use of TOR be the same as going through a VPN? I was thinking of using the Linux Distro "Tails" because it has TOR built in.

  20. Ashwin D
    June 5, 2014 at 4:05 pm

    Nowadays Top VPNs have premium servers which dont allow P2P!

  21. likefunbutnot
    June 5, 2014 at 12:36 am

    Something something NNTP something.

    There's something to be said for torrent sites with memberships and quotas. Uploads tend to be higher quality because the membership is usually self-policing to a much greater degree than sites like The Pirate Bay.

    Some of the best torrent sites serve a single interest, whether that interest is horror movies or knitting patterns. If you can identify and participate in sch a community

    VPN Services are not all created equal. It's possible to configure most torrent clients to use a torrent-only Proxy, meaning the rest of your internet traffic doesn't have to be routed through a VPN just so you can download Game of Thones. However, some VPN services don't offer Torrent Proxies. Also, if you engage in a LOT of illegal downloading, it may also be useful to redirect low-level hostname lookups through your VPN, something that most VPN clients don't do by default. That feature is called DNS Leak Protection and while it's definitely safer, it can also cause other issues with networking. Finally, if you can find a client that will allow it, it's a good idea to set your client up to disallow internet connectivity if the VPN connection drops. Better that than temporarily allow all your online activity to be correctly identified and traced back to you.

    I do use Private Internet Access. It's inexpensive and can be surprisingly fast. I actually keep a machine on a dedicated VPN connection and do all my questionable activity on that one machine, so that the other systems in my apartment are not impacted by my permanent connection to Europe.

    If you're going to be torrenting a lot, make sure you have a high-performance home router. Torrenting is CPU intensive for your router, and low end models will overheat or need to be rebooted frequently. "Dual Band" hardware is usually a good place to start.

    It's not a question of safety, but it's much, much easier to organize downloads as you're saving them rather than dumping everything into one folder.

    • James B
      June 5, 2014 at 6:36 am

      Excellent advice, except for proxies: I've been reading a lot about people who used proxies and got infringement letters regardless. Could be they set it up wrong, could be they were leaking info, could be they used crap proxies. Not something I would risk though.

      Vuze is the only client I've found which offers reliable interface binding; Deluge has the option but it just didnt work for me. I've PIA had a killswitch in their VPN client, but I assume that means on windows only.

    • Ron Ablang
      June 8, 2014 at 8:11 pm

      Regarding the post from "likefunbutnot", he says, "If you’re going to be torrenting a lot, make sure you have a high-performance home router. Torrenting is CPU intensive for your router, and low end models will overheat or need to be rebooted frequently. “Dual Band” hardware is usually a good place to start."

      I disagree. I have an old Linksys WRT54GL router. Yes, 802.11g router running at 54 mbit speeds (local network). I torrent a lot (using a VPN) and I've never experienced those symptoms he mentions.

    • James B
      June 9, 2014 at 6:13 am

      In fairness, that's a good router. Old, maybe, but good. The advice is still sound for purchasing today.

    • brokenrouter
      December 20, 2014 at 5:43 pm

      @James B I completely agree. I was using a somewhat basic router and torrented quite a bit. As stated, my router kept rebooting until one day it just stopped working.

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