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What are torrent files and is it safe to use them?
The internet would not be the smooth, seamless experience it usually is without the ability to move large files between computers. One way to facilitate this is to use active, always-on servers with incredible bandwidth. Another is peer-to-peer networking that uses the BitTorrent protocol to download large files in pieces from multiple computers. This method provides excellent download speeds and saves the original distributor of the file a fortune in server costs.
There is nothing inherently wrong, illegal, or dangerous, in the BitTorrent protocol or in transferring files this way. Major corporations use them for archiving and file transfers every day. The bad reputation torrenting has acquired is due to the contents of what is exchanged. Much of the piracy of copyrighted movies, TV shows, music, and software that goes on is in the form of torrents. And sometimes those illicitly acquired files come with malware of various types. That’s more than enough to make torrenting appear a little shady, although the technology itself is sound. In this article, we’ll discuss torrent files and how to reduce or eliminate the risks inherent in the technology, so you can use them safely.
A torrent file is a computer file used by a BitTorrent client to find copies of a desired file (which could be video, audio, text, or software) on the BitTorrent network. The torrent file contains information about the sought-after content, like file size and folder structure, that the client uses to find a computer (or computers) storing the content in question. Each torrent file is specific to one piece of content.
There is nothing inherently dangerous about torrent files. You just have to be careful about what you download, as always.
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What are torrent files and how do they work?
A torrent file does not actually contain any text, images, or videos. It contains information about the files you want to acquire — file size, folder structure, etc. Once you open a torrent file in your torrent client (a program that finds, downloads, and coordinates torrents), it connects with a server called a tracker. The tracker keeps track of all the servers (usually just personal PCs in people’s homes) that contain your requested file. Then the file transfer takes place directly between a computer that contains the file and your computer.
One of the advantages of BitTorrent is that if more than one computer has your file, the client can take chunks of the code, referred to as pieces, from various computers that are running a BitTorrent client at the moment. The reason this helps with download speed is that the internet in general is faster at downloading than uploading. By limiting the amount asked of each individual BitTorrent server (that is the uploading part), and taking from more than one server at a time, your BitTorrent client can download the file to your computer much faster than a single server could deliver it. Your torrent client will put the pieces together in the right order, so what you download is identical to the original file.
And when you finish downloading, you can let your computer be a download server for others. As long as your computer is on, your internet connection is active, and your BitTorrent client is running, other BitTorrent users can take all or part of the file you just downloaded, using their client. This offering of your own copy of the file for upload is called seeding. In fact, in torrenting circles, it is considered good manners to allow as much uploading to occur from your computer as you download from others’ (to “seed as much as you leech”). Even if you only downloaded part of a file, someone else’s client can make use of it to construct a full copy of the file.
Is torrenting safe?
In a word, yes. There is nothing inherently dangerous about the act of torrenting itself. The danger lies in what you download and comes from two places:
- The file you download might be covered by a copyright, and that means you are downloading it without paying for it or otherwise receiving permission to have it. This is illegal, and a cottage industry has sprung up around trolling BitTorrent servers to try to find people pirating content. When they find one, they go to the holder of the copyright, with your IP address as evidence, and offer to sue you on their behalf. This is why you should always make sure that what you are looking for is in the public domain.
- The file you download could be corrupted with malware — from mere adware, all the way up to a worm that replicates itself in your computer. If you don’t catch and neutralize it, spreads itself to other computers via the BitTorrent network. This is why you should always make sure you are getting your torrents from a reliable source. One way to do this is to check how many servers are distributing a file — those with high numbers are more likely safe.
Should you be using a VPN when torrenting?
Torrenting exposes your IP address to everyone else using the same tracker. One of the main advantages of a virtual private network (VPN) is that it has its own IP address that replaces yours. This means your activity cannot be traced to your IP, only the VPN’s. And if you use a so-called zero-logging VPN, your activity won’t be traceable to the VPN’s IP either.
So, even though it is not strictly necessary, using a VPN removes one of the main risk factors of torrenting. The great majority of people who download via torrents use a VPN service, usually one that specializes in peer-to-peer support.
No, torrenting itself is perfectly legal. The illegality associated with torrenting comes from the prevalence of people sharing copyrighted material.
Although Tor does provide the ability to download torrents, its privacy is not as good as a VPN. Tor is also known to be slow and a magnet for scrutiny of your internet activity. This is due to the number of hackers, drug dealers, and other criminals who use Tor.
Video game makers, social media sites, and the internet archive known as the Wayback Machine all use torrenting to exchange large files.
In the P2P world, it is considered rude to download files but not let your computer be used by others. You are supposed to upload as much as you download. If you don’t, you might be called this unflattering name.