Large-scale monitoring, few hours to identify file-sharers

Pierluigi Paganini September 05, 2012

We have often discussed the fact that governments and intelligence agencies regularly use tools to spy on communications and navigation data of millions internet users.

The market monitoring is a thriving market, where revenue opportunities are high and where demand is far outstripping supply. Malware, backdoors, appliances are just some of the solutions used to spy on unsuspecting users. Many completely ignore the phenomenon, they consider that leading a blameless life when they return home they are away from prying eyes. Nothing could be more wrong, and if you think you can in total comfort download a movie to watch in the evening to must know that big brother is ready to track you.

A recent study conducted at Birmingham University states that any illegal file-sharer would be logged by a monitoring firm within few hours. The declaration in my opinion doesn’t represent a news but what have to alarm internet users is the possibility that there is ongoing surveillance on large scale. Are we paranoid? I think no, the problem exists, we are approaching the great problem of piracy, an amazing business for cybercriminals and that is worrying private businesses that are making pressure on governments to increase penalties.

The copyright holders have engaged a private war against illegal downloading, and in many cases to retrieve information regarding the illegal activities the investigations violate user’s privacy.

The team of researchers, author of the study has developed a software for file sharing similar to BitTorrent client and logged all the connections made to it. Dr. Tom Chothia leads the research revealing uncomfortable truths on the massive monitoring that was surprising for it amplitude.

First reflection is that the logs revealed that monitoring is not able to distinguish between legal and illegal downloaders, every user is tracked in the same way no matter if he is a “mass downloader” or a “casual downloader”.

Another criterion to select users is the content of the download, if it is in fact in the Top 100 downloads, the user is immediately tracked, less popular content was also monitored although less frequently.

“If the content was in the top 100 it was monitored within hours,” he said. “Someone will notice and it will be recorded.”

The phenomenon to track content sharing is not isolated, the study identified about 10 different monitoring organizations logging content that include copyright-enforcement organizations and security firms.

Research has revealed only a part of the intensive monitoring made secretly by many companies some of which cannot identified because are using third-party hosting firms to run the searches for them.

Massive monitoring has the dual purpose of obtaining the greatest number of data that may be used for future analysis and obviously is a practical time to the resale of information on the market.

The researcher said

“Many firms are simply sitting on the date. Such monitoring is easy to do and the data is out there so they think they may as well collect it as it may be valuable in the future,”

“The data shows what content is popular and where,”

Researchers used two techniques to gather information about users of The Pirate Bay, “Indirect monitoring” and “Direct monitoring“.

“indirect” monitoring, uses “indirect clues that a peer is uploading or downloading some content,”, it is an “extensive,” this technique generates a “high rate of false positives,”, meanwhile  “direct tracking” allows trackers to collect “first-hand evidence” of illegal downloads.

During a “Direct monitoring” the monitor establishes connections with peers to determine that they are sharing a file, this method is more effective but also much more expensive due to a need for more bandwidth and servers.

The study raised doubt over the effectiveness of so-called blocklists such as PeerBlock adopted by several monitoring organizations.

Are these data admissible in court?

Dr. Chothia expressed doubt over whether such evidence would be admissible in court

“All the monitors observed during the study would connect to file-sharers and verify that they were running the BitTorrent software, but they would not actually collect any of the files being shared,”

“It is questionable whether the monitors observed would actually have evidence of file-sharing that would stand up in court.”

Many copyright owners are trying to use IP addresses gathered during monitoring firms to apply for court orders obliging ISP to provide real identity of their customers.
The effort of copyright owners hasn’t produced the expected results for the moment but in the future the pression of private businesses on governments could induce them to define targeted legislations to prevent these illegal activities sacrificing the privacy of citizens.

Pierluigi Paganini

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