The BitTorrent protocol has taken a lot of flak in recent years, as Internet Service Providers (ISPs) have become more and more aware of the quantity of illegal material distributed via the protocol. In fact a recent study suggested that up to 70% of all web traffic goes via the BitTorrent protocol.
With so many people and businesses opting to use it over older, traditional means of uploading and downloading files, it holds a lot of credibility as a protocol, so let’s take a closer look at exactly what BitTorrent is, how you can use it and why you might want to use it.
What is BitTorrent?
As I’ve already mentioned, BitTorrent is a protocol designed to allow the transfer of large files over the Internet. What sets it apart from the myriad other protocols that provide an identical end result, is that it doesn’t rely on a single, central server to host the files to be downloaded by various clients.
Instead, BitTorrent makes unique use of peer-to-peer networking, connecting various peers (those who download the files) with an initial seed (the person who created the torrent file). Once a peer has completely downloaded the files attached to the torrent file, they then become a seed and start sharing the strain of the download with the other seeds.
The ‘torrent file’ that I’ve mentioned a few times there, is basically a link embedded into a tiny file that can be read by a BitTorrent client, which we’ll look more closely at later, that contains data directing the peer to the files hosted by the seed(s). Essentially, someone who wants to gain access to files hosted via BitTorrent merely needs to download a .Torrent file associated with the target content, which equates to just a handful of kilobytes in size, and open it up in a BitTorrent client. The actual download then works itself out there.
So the process is simple really and here’s how it all works.
One person creates a .Torrent file and associates it with the files they want to share with other people. They then share that .Torrent file via any means possible, the most popular method being via one of many notorious Torrent sharing websites, ‘The Pirate Bay’ being one of the more well documented sites.
So for example they send the .Torrent file to their friend, who then opens up the file in their BitTorrent client, which then downloads the target files to their machine. If that person then completes the download, and the .Torrent file is shared to another person, that person will be receiving the files from a combination of both of the original people’s machines.
Why is it Useful?
Firstly, due to the nature of it being shared from multiple seeds, known as a ‘swarm’, BitTorrent allows files to be transferred relatively quickly, irrespective of the individual upload speeds. If one seed can only muster 250KB/s upload on their home network, they can still contribute that speed to the download, alongside another seed who might be able to hammer out 2MB/s. The speeds are essentially combined until all the peers have maxed out their download speeds.
Effectively, if there are a number of capable seeds attached to a .Torrent file, this makes it a relatively fast method of downloading compared to downloading from a single source.
For this reason, many businesses have adopted the BitTorrent client, such as Facebook and Twitter, which both upload gargantuan quantities of data whenever an update is made to their website. By using BitTorrent, the strain is reduced on a single server, which in theory can dramatically reduce the running costs of a company’s servers.The British government is another good example of where BitTorrent is legitimately deployed, as they use it as a means of distributing tax documentation to the general population for the same reasons, one would imagine.
On top of that, the BitTorrent protocol ensures the integrity of the files are not compromised mid-download. Within the .Torrent file, or the magnet link which performs a similar task, is embedded the details of the target files that are to be downloaded. If, for whatever reason, these files are altered by any seed during the upload process, they are detached from it, which goes some way to keeping malicious activity at bay.
It’s worth noting, though, that this does not protect you entirely from receiving viruses or malware via BitTorrent, should that be the intent of the initial seed. For example, many anti-piracy companies embed trackers into .Torrent files hosted on ‘illegal’ sharing sites which will make the IP address of the recipients known to them so they can potential create a lawsuit against them. This same principle applies to anyone hosting files via BitTorrent, as literally any files can be attached to it.
How Can I Use BitTorrent?
I’ve already touched upon this aspect various times throughout this article, but it’s worth highlighting in more detail as it can get rather confusing at times. There are a multitude of BitTorrent clients out there for various platforms, but here are is a list of the more trusted and popular applications.
- uTorrent (Windows and Mac)
- BitTorrent (Windows and Mac)
- Transmission (Mac and Linux)
- Azureus/Vuze (Windows and Mac)
All of these applications are free for you to download, and relatively lightweight in terms of their strain on your system resources away from your bandwidth, for obvious reasons. Feature-wise they are all very similar, but in my experience Vuze tends to come with a lot of bloat that is unnecessary for a small client, but perhaps its worth checking out anyway. BitTorrent and uTorrent are quite lightweight and most popular among users.
As I’ve already said, there are humungous numbers of sources for downloading .Torrent files and subsequently the attached files. Many of which tend to host legal files, and many others don’t. It’s no myth that BitTorrent is often used for sharing audio and video files online, many of which are copyrighted and therefore not allowed to be shared in that way, but nonetheless, it’s the most probable use for BitTorrent at the moment.
Here’s a list of the more popular sites for downloading .Torrent files:
- The Pirate Bay
- Torrent Box
There are a number of private access sites that share torrent files within a closer knit community, with rules and regulations regarding use. These are notoriously hard to gain access to, usually via invite from a current member with that authority, but provide a more secure downloading experience as well as more often than not, faster download speeds.
Some of the more popular private torrenting sites include:
In addition to these tracker sites, there are also what’s known as ‘torrent search engines’, which can differ in the way they operate. Perhaps the more popular torrent search tool is Torrentz, which aggregates many of the more popular public trackers into one list for you, and allows you to select the one with the best seed-peer ratio, critical for gaining the fastest download speeds possible.
In addition to that there’s BitSnoop, which is actually more functional. Instead of just listing all the trackers hosting a certain file, BitSnoop creates its own .Torrent files by aggregating all of the other trackers it finds hosting identical files. Therefore you get a combination of all the seeds from all the sources, for any files hosted on any of the same, more popular, public tracker sites.
Downloading, Scheduling, and Limiting Torrents
Downloading a torrent couldn’t be simpler really. The tracker site, such as The Pirate Bay, will have a download link that you can grab the .Torrent file from, then you just need to double click the file itself or head straight into the BitTorrent application of choice and open it manually via the ‘File’ menu, as typical of most machines and applications these days.
If you want to go a little bit deeper, you can schedule your torrents to start and stop at certain times, at least in most clients. in uTorrent, you need to head into the preferences or options menu, depending on whether you’re on Windows or Mac. Once there, there is a tab at the top called’ Scheduler’. Head into that and you’re immediately faced with a large green grid of rectangles with a key along the bottom.
What this allows you to do in effect, is tell your client when to stop downloading, or at what times to limit the speeds. You might want to do this if you know that people will be wanting to use a lot of bandwidth during certain times and don’t want to suck it all up by downloading large files. It just means you don’t have to keep monitoring a torrent while it’s downloading.
As you can see from the screenshot, for demonstration purposes, I’ve limited my downloads to various speeds throughout the majority of Friday.
Similarly, you can limit the speeds of your torrents permanently or temporarily while you might be doing something else online that you don’t want interrupted. Some clients have a simple shortcut that will limit the download to, say, 10KB/s, but you can set the speeds to your own limits via the preferences menu, as shown below.
How to Create a .Torrent File
.Torrent files are typically created from within a standard BitTorrent client, as listed above. Therefore the method varies depending on which application your using, but not drastically. This guide is demonstrated using uTorrent for Mac, but the process is strikingly similar on Windows and on BitTorrent application too. Vuze and Transmission might differ a little more drastically.
Firstly, open up the uTorrent application and hit File > New Torrent, or alternatively CMD/Ctrl + N.
Then you’ll be faced with a form, asking for all of your torrent information as shown here:
What you need to do now, is locate the file or folder that you want to turn into a .Torrent file, by hitting ‘Add File’, or ‘Add Directory’ respectively, and locating the files or folder in the typical way through Finder or Windows Explorer.
Once you’ve added the file, you need to add a tracker. There are various open trackers that you can use for many of the torrent sites listed above, here are a few for your use:
Add one or more of those to the ‘trackers’ field in the form, and hit ‘Create and Save As’, unless you want to add a comment which won’t affect the process in any way apart from your own reference.
Then once you’ve saved the .Torrent file, you need to add it to your client to start seeding to anyone that you want to share it with. This is really a one click process unless you want to dive into the more advanced settings. Just hit okay when you see the screen shown here:
And you’re on your way, just send the .Torrent file that should be in the location you saved it in originally to whoever you wish, or just leave it on the trackers you selected for public consumption. If you’re using a private tracker site, such as Demonoid or HD-Bits, then you’ll need to get the tracker details from the site and select‘private torrent’ in the creation form.
How to Stay Anonymous
There are various methods of keeping yourself anonymous while file sharing. One way is to create what’s known as a ‘seed box’. Effectively, this is a server hosted elsewhere that often provide you with a uTorrent WebUI for you to use to download all of your torrents to the server. You can then get FTP access to the seed box so you can bring it down to your local drive. This may be seen as a lengthy process, but it’s worth noting, that in the UK at least, ISPs are not allowed to inspect FTP packets, only P2P, so this effectively makes them blind to what you’re doing.
Secondly, you could go for the encryption route. Most of the major BitTorrent clients include some sort of outgoing encryption tool. The below screenshot shows the preferences menu for uTorrent for Mac and you can see at the bottom there are a trio of check-boxes regarding outgoing encryption. You’ll want to just hit enable if you want to use this method.
Alternatively, and lastly, there are various third-party applications that will do the same job for you, such asPeerGuardian or ProtoWall, which both act as a virtual ‘firewall’ preventing any snooping at your activity during a P2P download via BitTorrent.
How to Stay Safe
The first rule of staying safe online is to trust your instincts. If a site is unfamiliar, or doesn’t look quite legitimate enough to be trusted, then don’t trust it. It may seem obvious, but it will stand you in good stead whilst searching for Torrents.
Many of the ‘trusted’ trackers also provide virus checking information for you, so always be on the lookout for that. Usually you will be informed that the torrent has been checked for threats and is all good to go.
I’d also recommend that you get all of your .Torrent files from an online tracker, rather than in an e-mail from someone that you don’t know. If it ‘s a friend or colleague who wants to share something with you then that’s fine, as long as you trust them, but otherwise steer clear.
There’s also the often highlighted point of just keeping anti-virus running on your machine if you’re going to be downloading a lot via P2P. That goes for Mac owners too, you can never be too careful.
Obviously BitTorrent has gotten itself quite a bad name over recent years, as the primary use of it has to be for illegal file sharing. However that’s not to say that it isn’t a great tool for sharing files legitimately. It has many advantages, and is relatively safe providing you keep your wits about you and your common sense in tact.
Most decent clients offer a lot of control over your downloads, which can be vital when downloading particularly large files that can disturb bandwidth for a prolonged period of time, as well as the ability to create and share your own torrents on various trackers or just with your friends or colleagues.
It would certainly be a sad day if BitTorrent as a protocol was banned, although I don’t honestly think that will happen, but the fact that it represents such an enormous quantity of the entire flow of traffic over the Internet will most likely remain a concern for ISPs into the future.
Disclaimer: This guide was to help you understand, use and make the most of what is a great tool, and we take no responsibility for anything that you choose to use it for, legitimate or otherwise.