How Pirates Pirate Stuff: How Bad Guys Steal Movies, Music, and Games Online

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FBI Anti-piracy

You’ve no doubt seen the warnings against copying DVDs and sharing or selling copyrighted materials. With all the legal issues and Digital Millennium Copyright Act infringement notices, though, how does piracy actually happen? September 19th is “International Talk Like a Pirate Day,” so let’s talk about piracy (and privacy).

Disclaimer: We’re not advocating pirating or bootlegging here, which is defined as copying or using others’ works for profit without permission. The same technology that makes piracy possible, however, also supports users’ online privacy and anonymity — and is definitely worth understanding.

Key Tools

A few of these terms may be familiar:

Torrent files and BitTorrrent: Torrents are small files that contain metadata (information about containers of data) for files or folders that can be shared or distributed. They’re like pointers to files, rather than the actual files themselves. They help users interested in sharing or downloading those files find each other. Torrents are uploaded by one person, then others who want the bigger files (such as videos or software) can download them using a torrent client, such as BitTorrent. The bigger file is shared in pieces using peer-to-peer networks from other users (called seeders) who have the main file.

Forbes has a great explanation of how the BitTorrent protocol works, with illustrations like this:

How BitTorrent Works

Proxy Servers: The key to successful pirating is staying anonymous and not caught. Proxy servers hide your IP address — which could reveal your location — so the website and your Internet Service Provider can’t identify you. Beyond masking your identity, proxy servers also help fake your location — making it seem like your request came from another city or country — which means you can use a proxy server to download region-restricted content.

VPNs: These are a stronger, specific type of proxy server that encrypts the data from your end to the destination website or server. Your information requests and inputs are hidden in this encrypted tunnel, so prying eyes can’t see it. It’s more secure than just using a proxy server, since even if hackers break into the tunnel, the data is garbled unless they have the decryption key or password.

For legal and bandwidth reasons, not all VPNs support file sharing services and torrenting, though. You can find privacy-oriented VPN services in this list from TorrentFreak.

Tor: Tor, which stands for The Onion Router, is a software tool that helps you browse the Internet anonymously, so your location and identity aren’t disclosed or tracked. It works by rerouting your Internet traffic through virtual tunnels. Originally developed with the U.S. Navy in mind, people these days use Tor to communicate safely with others (think information-gathering by journalists), as well as for other privacy needs.

How Tor WorksThese are the tools that enable private file sharing, private Web browsing and, yes, piracy. Again, we’re not advocating media piracy and you should know the legal ramifications for overstepping copyright law, but that doesn’t make these tools bad. (As Torrent Freak put it recently, “Censorship is not the answer to online privacy.”) In fact, in this age of Internet snooping, they’re good to keep in mind.

Here’s an infographic from WhoIsHostingThis illustrating how these technologies work:

How to stay anonymous online

 Image credits: Adrian Martin (Flickr), Forbes, TOR, WhoIsHostingThis

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