If you were using the Internet before the age of streaming sites, then you’re probably aware of what torrents are. You may have visited a torrent site to download a ripped movie, music album, or video game before (although we don’t recommend it) or have heard of people using one. This article touches on what torrenting is and how torrents work.
What are Torrents?
The term “torrent” refers to files shared through a decentralized, peer-to-peer (P2P) sharing network. P2P file sharing allows users to exchange files without uploading these to a server. The term may also refer to the file name extension or metadata that tells trackers—programs that coordinate the transfer of torrents—where to get torrent files.
How does Torrenting Work?
Torrenting doesn’t depend on a centralized server for storing files. Instead, bits of data from individual large files are saved in participating computers (peers) in a network (swarm) to facilitate the file-sharing process. A P2P communication protocol like BitTorrent breaks down the files into pieces and moves them from uploaders (seeders) to downloaders (leechers) via a torrent client (a separate program that reads all the information in the .torrent file and connects users to exchange data).
Watch this video for more information.
A system of checks and balances described below is applied to make the torrenting process somewhat foolproof:
- A torrent file (.torrent) contains information on which computers are part of the file-sharing process. It may also provide some details on the files and folders that a user is downloading.
- The torrent client connects to a tracker, which holds the IP addresses of the devices in a swarm. The tracker forwards the IP addresses to all torrent clients to ensure all peers are connected.
- The torrent client starts the download. Once it receives sufficient bits of data, it also begins to upload the file for the benefit of other users.
What are the Good Uses of Torrents?
While torrent sites have become a hub for digital pirates and infringers, they can be useful for syncing large chunks of files and sharing media you own the rights to. Social media giants like Facebook and Twitter, in fact, use a similar protocol to upload large files to their server to conserve bandwidth. A torrent client may also be integrated into a game to deploy software updates, as in Starcraft’s case. Some government agencies also use torrents to share large images and documents to the public that could otherwise put a strain on their servers.
Is It Illegal to Download Torrent Files?
The short answer is no. The act of sharing files via torrent sites is not illegal in itself. It only becomes illegal when a user uploads or downloads copyrighted material through a torrent client or website.
Are Torrent Files Safe to Download?
Generally speaking, most torrents are relatively safe—as long as you know where they’re from. Besides, malicious actors attempting to change torrent metadata would effectively corrupt its corresponding file, rendering it useless.
However, malware-ridden torrent files are incredibly widespread, too, and are often linked to pirated copies of TV show episodes. Torrent users also need to watch out for executable (.exe) or batch files (.bat) as these are commonly associated with scripts that install malware into computers.
Should I Use a VPN for Torrenting?
Virtual private networks (VPNs) hide your IP address from sites that want to track you. They also conceal your entire online activities from your Internet service provider (ISP). Using a VPN to download files from a torrent site can help you stay anonymous online, keeping you safe from cyber attackers.
Bear in mind that ISPs track VPN traffic, though, so keep your torrent use legal. Using VPNs is also illegal in some countries, so make sure your country is not on a list where VPNs are banned.