Anyone who has downloaded pirated music, video or ebooks using a BitTorrent client has probably had their IP address logged by copyright-enforcement authorities within three hours of doing so. So say computer scientists who placed a fake pirate server online—and very quickly found monitoring systems checking out who was taking what from the servers.
The news comes from this week's SecureComm conference in Padua, Italy, where computer security researcher Tom Chothia and his colleagues at the University of Birmingham, UK, revealed they have discovered "massive monitoring" of BitTorrent download sites, such as the PirateBay, has been taking place for at least three years.
BitTorrent is a data distribution protocol that splits an uploaded digital media file into many parts and shares it around a swarm of co-operating servers. Birmingham's fake server acted like a part of a file-sharing swarm and the connections made to it quickly revealed the presence of file-sharing monitors run by "copyright enforcement organisations, security companies and even government research labs".
"We only detected monitors in Top 100 torrents; this implies that copyright enforcement agencies are monitoring only the most popular content music and movie on public trackers," the team says in its presentation paper. "Almost everyone that shares popular films and music illegally will be connected to by a monitor and will have their IP address logged," says Chothia.
Given the vast numbers of people whose IP addresses will have now been logged, the finding raises the question over what enforcement outfits now plan to do with their harvested data. Have they gathered a war chest of targets for future copyright infringement lawsuits? Or are they simply assessing the scale of the problem to make governments act?
If it is for lawsuits, the standard of evidence may not be enough, says Chothia. "All the monitors connected to file sharers believed to be sharing illegal content. However, they did not actually collect any of the files being shared. So it is questionable whether the observed evidence of file-sharing would stand up in court."
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