Whether you’re sending email, reading an online newspaper, downloading a torrent or looking at an NSFW site, assume that someone is watching you. Revelations about the vast extent of the U.S. National Security Agency’s online monitoring program have made that clear. But it’s not only the government snooping around your Internet activity. Corporations also watch what you download. There are ways to discover if you’re being tracked -- and take steps to prevent it.
If You Use BitTorrent, You’re Being Watched
BitTorrent has become the most popular method of peer-to-peer file sharing, transmitting files from one networked computer to another without a centralized server. A 2012 study by British researchers identified 1,139 IP addresses used to monitor BitTorrent downloading and track down users. From the beginning, P2P protocols have been used to share copyrighted material without permission from the copyright holders. The groups monitoring torrenting activity include government organizations, private security firms and copyright enforcement groups. Media companies themselves go online to seek out their own files. Torrent client software displays the IP addresses of any computer sharing a particular file, allowing the monitoring groups to track down users.
How to Check If Your Downloads Are Being Monitored
In 2011, a Russia-based Web site went live with the URL YouHaveDownloaded.com. The purpose of the site was to demonstrate to torrent users the ease with which their activity is monitored and recorded. Public file sharing networks make their user data publicly viewable. The YouHaveDownloaded.com site compiled this data, storing it on their own servers. Visitors to the site could then type in their own IP addresses -- or any IP addresses -- and see a list of files they have downloaded via torrent. However, the operators of YouHaveDownloaded.com estimated that their database covered only 20 percent of torrenting activity, and as of August 2013, the site had gone on hiatus, promising to return “with something unique, innovative and fascinating.”
Ways to Hide From the Watchers
If you worry about being discovered downloading copyrighted material, there is one solution: don’t do it. Downloading copyrighted media is illegal and companies have filed thousands of lawsuits against users. Even without engaging in illegal activity, Internet users have an interest in maintaining their privacy. While applications such as PeerBlock attempt to filter out connections from the IP addresses of known monitors, they don’t catch everything. Downloading anonymously through an application such as BTGuard is the only reliable way to throw the watchers off your trail, though BTGuard charges a monthly fee for keeping your IP address hidden from snooping computers. When surfing the Web, blocking cookies and immediately deleting any that are automatically downloaded helps shield your activities from trackers. Advances in tracking technology now allow certain sites to track users around the Web even with cookies blocked.
The United States Government Has Its Eye on You
In June of 2013, the U.K.-based Guardian newspaper published stories revealing the extent of the United States government’s monitoring of online activity, as well as telephone conversations and other communication. Based on documents leaked by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, the stories showed the government accessing data from Internet companies such as Google, Apple, Facebook and others. The companies all denied that they’d given the government “back door” access to user communications. A later story disclosed that the NSA used a program called XKeyscore which allowed it to collect data on “nearly everything a user does on the Internet.” That is why assuming that you are being watched online is always the safe bet.
- Lifehacker.com: What Does My Internet Provider See When I'm Downloading Torrents?
- The Register: Man Reveals Secret Recipe Behind Undeletable Cookies
- Slate.com: Report - If You’ve Downloaded a Popular Movie via BitTorrent, You’re Probably Being Watched
- Dot Tech: Proof-of-Concept Website Displays Your P2P (Torrent) Download History
- CNet: Five Ways to Avoid Being Tracked on the Web
- The Guardian: Edward Snowden And The NSA files – Timeline
- The Guardian: XKeyscore: NSA Tool Collects "Nearly Everything User Does on the Internet"
- MIT.edu: The Challenges of Stopping Illegal Peer-to-Peer File Sharing
- US News and World Report: Porn Companies File Mass Piracy Lawsuits: Are You At Risk?
- TorrentFreak.com: BTGuard Review - How Does it Work?
- Digital Piracy - Not a Victimless Crime: Alexander Porter
- CNN Money: 50,000 BitTorrent Users Sued for Alleged Illegal Downloads
- Australian Broadcasting Corporation: New Snowden Leaks: XKeyscore Program Used to Track Internet Users
- Softpedia: XKeyscore, the NSA Program That Collects Everything You Do Online
- Lifehacker.com: Find Out Which ISPs Are the Biggest BitTorrent Throttlers
- TechSpot.com: Managing Your Privacy Online: BitTorrent Downloads
Jonathan Vankin is an award-winning journalist with more than 20 years of experience. He has written for such publications as "The New York Times Magazine," "Wired" and Salon, covering technology, arts, sports, music and politics. Vankin is also the author of three nonfiction books and several graphic novels.