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 a file 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).
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A system of checks and balances described below is applied to make the torrenting process somewhat foolproof:
- A torrent file (.torrent) contains information telling users 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 servers 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 to download—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.
What Is a Torrent Tracker?
A torrent tracker is a server that helps users communicate with other peers faster by monitoring which peer machines keep specific files. It works like Tinder and other dating apps that match users based on the preferences they input. When two people decide to meet in person or communicate through another platform, they can do so without Tinder.
Similarly, when a torrent user requests a specific file, the torrent tracker connects him or her to the appropriate peer machine. Once the P2P download has started, the connection to the tracker is no longer necessary.
How to Use Torrents
Here is a step-by-step guide on how to use torrents.
Step 1: Choose and Download a Torrent Client
Before you can start sharing or downloading files, you need to choose and install a torrent client. Choose carefully, as some come with adware that can cause issues with your computer or device. Best to download directly from the client’s website so you can avoid downloading malware from third-party sites. While there are free-for-download clients, going for a premium client is ideal if you want security features.
Step 2: Install a Tracker Site
Once you’ve installed a torrent client, you need also to download a tracker site, which contains listings of torrent files. They are only a repository for torrent files and do not host content on their servers.
There are two types of trackers sites. One is a public tracker site, accessible to all users. The other is a private tracker site, which contains specialized torrent websites that host unique niches of files. Registration to a private tracker site is often exclusive and by invite only. It also requires users to seed torrents after each download.
Step 3: Search Content for Download
Next, you can search for the content you want to download. Search results often return several files, choose the ones with many seeders so your download goes faster. Before downloading, check if you can run the file.
Step 4: Download the Content
Once you know if the file is compatible with your installed programs, you can start downloading the content. You can download multiple files but it is a good practice to prioritize your downloads.
Can You Go to Jail for Torrenting?
As we said earlier, torrenting per se is not illegal if done for non-copyrighted materials or content you have rights to.
Technically speaking, downloading and sharing copyrighted content is illegal. You can get caught by law enforcers and Internet service providers (ISPs), especially if you do not hide your IP address.
If you are found guilty of copyright infringement, you can get up to five years of imprisonment and pay as much as US$150,000 for each content. In addition, the copyright owner can also file charges against you, which means you have to pay for legal fees and other damages. If you think about it, you could have just paid for the material so you can use it legally.
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.