Monday, March 26, 2007

Milwaukee mail

Recently, the University of Wisconsin (based in Madison, WI) announced that it would not forward on threatening letters from the RIAA to its students. Now, some of the other schools in the system are going along with it in what can only be seen as a setback to the recording industry's thuggish policies.

According to an email sent to all members of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM) such letters will not be passed on to students. The full text of the email reads

SUBJECT: Illegal File Sharing at UWM
This announcement is being sent to all known UWM faculty, staff and student e-mail addresses.
The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) has recently increased its threat of lawsuits against students and others who engage in illegal digital file sharing. This is in response to perceived violations of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998, which specifically addresses copyright infringement of digital materials such as music, movies and software.
As you may know from recent press reports, the RIAA is now targeting individuals who live in university residence halls or use university computing resources. Because the RIAA can only identify violators by their ISP (Internet Service Provider) identifier, they are sending letters to universities requesting that these letters be forwarded to students, faculty and staff.
The RIAA notified UWM of its plans to send settlement proposal letters for individuals on the UWM campus whom they believe are guilty of violating federal copyright laws. These letters request that a monetary settlement be made by the violator in lieu of court action by the RIAA.
After consultation with UW System, our own legal counsel and with our understanding of federal law, UWM has decided that these letters will not be passed on to individuals. However, should RIAA send UWM a lawful subpoena for users’ account information, UWM will comply.
It is important to be aware of copyright law and avoid illegal P2P (peer-to-peer) file sharing.
For more information, visit the UWM Information Security Web Site at

This is clearly a boon to its students, where there are more important things to do than respond to a glorified extortion letter. Bravo Wisconsin for standing up for your students, and dealing with the RIAA's cheesy plan appropriately.

Ben Jones

Private Protection?

There is a statement you'll often see on p2p forums, and in IRC channels. It usually comes in a discussion about “getting caught” or “letters been sent” and it goes something like “the safest thing is to join a private site”[image]. The other oft-proposed solution, blocklists, has been discussed before. Are private sites any safer though?

In preparing this piece, I spoke to several private site admins, and a few public tracker admins as well. The results may surprise you.

There are three main areas of concern, that the server may get seized, or that an anti-p2p agent may infiltrate the site. Seizure is a risk for all torrent trackers, or indeed all servers period, as both pirateBay, and indymedia can attest to. This has both good and bad points, in that you get the site shut down quickly, but on the downside, you REALLY have to have your ducks in a row before doing so. Additionally, you may take out the site admins, but you can often create a negative publicity backlash, especially if you take down other people's servers at the same time. 'Infiltration' is a more time consuming method, but can yield better results. This was the method used to mount evidence for the elitetorrent raid (operation d-elite) in May 2005. The third method is describable in many ways, depending on your opinion of the target of it. It can range from “surrendering to extortion” to “getting paid off” but means the server owner has been contacted by one or more groups or agencies, and has agreed to hand everything over voluntarily. There is only one real example of this so far, Lokitorrent.


Put simply, this is the method of :
  1. Going to the hosting company,
  2. Gaining entry (with or without a 100% legal and valid warrant) and
  3. Physically removing the servers from their racks,
  4. Then taking them into custody.
Often, search warrants will also be served on any members of the site also within jurisdiction and considered 'big enough'. Once they are taken into custody, the hard drives can then be examined and entered into evidence for possible criminal proceedings. How do private sites deal with this?

Well, depending on the site, you might be safe, whereas others you might as well just hand yourself in on others. All that I spoke to stored the total ratio (including upload and download counts) email address, and username/password. Many also save a list of what torrents you've uploaded to the tracker, although that list usually only contains active torrents active.

The email address and username/password is a bad thing. It counts as 'personally identifiable information', basically meaning you can't say “it wasn't me that did it'. Odds are you probably have an email from the torrent site in your email account with your username and password. If the password matches any other password you use, or if your computer shows records of having accessed that email account, that's a link made to you that will be very hard for you to explain away.

Of course, such seizures are rare, and to date there has been no activity against individual users of the sites, but it must be pointed out that of the two public tracker admins I contacted, (Anakata of the pirateBay, and the one of the tracker suppliers to EZTV and VTV's) both said that their trackers did not save any user data at all, it was all in volatile ram, meaning when they're pulled, or even when the power goes out, the data is gone. Only the most secure of the sites I spoke to (scenetorrents) offered this for its uploaders and staff)


This is more the sort of thing that copyright enforcement groups are generally better at. It takes a lot of time, and manpower, which they have, unlike the understaffed and overworked criminal investigators the world over . Not to say that such departments are not capable, there really are more important ACTUAL crimes, that affect everyday people in a major way that they should be dealing with instead. At its most basic, its someone, joining a site, and collecting info. Depending on the sites membership policies, and its popularity, this can be very easy, it can be hard. Quite a few are now invite-only, so first you have to find someone with an invite, and acquire one somehow. Methods for this alone have a huge range, from “hey any1 got an invite to xyz' on a forum [image], to building up a relationship and bona fides on an IRC network such as p2p-net, or EFnet. Others, such as the British TV+radio site UKnova are so popular that when an inactive account is purged, the empty membership can be snapped up within 5 minutes.

So, is there anything stopping these people joining? Well, in a word, no. It's unlikely a member of the BSA will try and register for a site from his office computer, for instance, but there is nothing stopping someone from doing so. One site however (Bitsoup) did give a sign up warning [image], albeit an old favourite making a comeback. Once someone is on, they then have the job of collecting IP addresses from the tracker. In this regard, private trackers are inherently much less secure. On most private sites, all users can view all the usernames of peers also on the torrent with them, and sometimes their upload and download averages.

If they were to compile lists of users on a torrent with the IPs on the torrent, it might be hard to match them, but do it over a few dozen torrents, and they'll start seeing the same IP ranges appearing only when a certain username is on it – they've now identified the IP address of that user. It is impossible to do this with a public tracker, as put simply, there is no username telling anyone when a certain person is on a torrent. Add in DHT, and that people tend not to have any loyalty to a certain tracker, mean its impossible to build this sort of complete peer overview without private sites.

So, copyright enforcers may be members of your favourite private tracker, do the sites do anything about it? Again, in a word, yes. None of the sites would go into detail with me how to monitor for such users (and I doubt I'd understand them if they did – software guys have a tendency to revert to their own private language when asked a technical question) but I was told by all of them that they employed a mixture of automated, and user-based methods to detect and report suspicious activity. Basically everything from a user reporting a peer acting suspiciously on up.


Whilst private sites can prevent you from getting the letters and emails from your ISP or enforcement agency, They are not a perfect solution. Dealing with these sites takes time and effort, a lot of it, and that's more than many rights holders care to do right now. It is relatively easy to go to somewhere like mininova, and find a torrent for your property, then grab the IPs and send an email to the corresponding ISPs, it's much more involved to do the same with private sites. In that aspect, private sites are safer. Until the majority (or at least a large percentage) of material on a private site belongs to one rights holder, that holder is unlikely to target that site. There are exceptions, of course, depending on the material in question – the elitetorrents bust over Star Wars Ep3 showed that.

In the long term however, when and if the procedure for prosecuting file sharers through civil court becomes easier, such sites will be far more hazardous to use. The very practice of restricting usage to certain identified members is its achillies heel. Using a groups own membership and activity records against itself has been a prosecution tactic for many decades. Seizures happen, infiltrations have gone on for a while now, and some might say it's only a matter of time.

In their favour, private sites have generally much faster speeds than public torrents, meaning your window of exposure for downloading is shorter. However due to the more limited availability of the torrent, and the greater importance on ratio, you can have a vastly greater upload window, and it's uploads that are usually targeted. They also generally have content policies, meaning fakes, malware and misnamed torrents are kept to a minimum.

Overall, in some ways they're safer, in just as many ways they're a liability. To put it another way, you're safer from the more common small-time infringement notification, but a much easier target for the (much rarer) big-time operations.

Ben Jones

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With thanks to the following people
Feeling of SceneTorrents
Dragonheart, at Bitsoup
[pm] at Uknova
Anakata at the PirateBay
a staff member at Tvjunkies
and the admin for some of vtv and eztv's trackers

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Swedish swashbucklers Spurn Secret Spying

Over in Sweden, their Pirate Party (the mother of all the other ones), Piratpartiet, Has been busy working on some pending legislation over there. Or rather, working on bringing attention to it. Over the last two weeks, members of the group formed a petition, and sent out a newsletter about the laws, which are set to vastly broaden the scope of government communication interception, as well as not requiring the group who would be conducting the surveillance, the National Defence Radio Establishment (FRA) to obtain a court order before commencing. Instead, it would be under the authority of a parliamentary committee.

In the two weeks since they started this work, the issue has now gone from an almost unheard-of piece of back-door legislation, to the source of major controversy in Sweden. To quote Rick Falkvinge, head of the Piratpartiet:

“We've been networking heavily, talking to people, organizing rallies, petitions, written and distributed newsletters, etc. A lot of this has taken place outside the eyes of the traditional media, in a social network context, just like we're good at.

Our work went so-so; we staged a rally in several locations across the nation that got 2 minutes of coverage in every news broadcast that night, but the break came about 2 weeks ago when we posted a newsletter about all the pipeline big-brother laws this spring at the same time as we started a petition. It wasn't necessarily the petition that made or broke the push; I like to regard it as the small effort that pushed past the tipping point.

If you're interested in reading the newsletter and understand Swedish (or have a decent translator), it's here.

Anyway, influential bloggers all over the political spectrum picked up both the petition (which does not mention us) and the newsletter (which is very tied to us) and started repeating the message. Within the first day, people from the top brass of the far-right liberal youth league as well as the party leader of the far-left communist party (who's in parliament) had signed the petition. Some youth league organizations also decided to back it as organizations, and repeated the message on their own front pages.

We're not given credit - we chose to not push our name, but rather the message - but everybody links to our petition and repeats the words of it, and right there at the petition footnotes is "Created by Christian Engstr?m, Piratpartiet et al".

Two weeks later, today, editorials all over Sweden are up in arms about the impending legislation and it's starting to get mainstream media coverage as well. Some are calling the law "Lex Orwell". We're not attributed in mainstream media, but the blogosphere is aware of who's been pushing the issue and who hasn't.

Politicians are feeling the pressure and are starting to backpedal, going defensive instead of visionary.”

Well done to all those involved in getting the word out. Legislation like this only manages to curb one thing – civil liberties. There are many things that are getting pushed through in the name of combating terrorism, and since per2peer is often linked to terrorism nowadays (see one of my first pieces here)

It could be said that yet again Swedish politicians are, if not buckling under the wishes of the US government, at least trying to emulate them. One can only wonder what would have happened if someone had done this in the US when the PATRIOT act was being introduced.

ben Jones

Other links
'Big brother' surveillance makes waves in Sweden (English,

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Men in Black (T-shirts)

Pirate Party of the USAI don't usually like to replay or appear to copy press releases, nor do I feel that reproducing what is basically in a press release is a good habit, or that you should really do it. Does a competition announcement, however, fall into that category?

Regardless, The Pirate Party of the US have kicked off on what could be called their first major act, since they went live in July of 2006, with a competition to design a T-shirt for use by the group. As I write this a closing date has yet to be announced, if you're handy with the old digital art canvas, it's worth a try.

More details here:

ADDENDUM 13/3/07 - The closing date has now been set as 8pm EDT on Monday 16th April. (thats 5pm PDT, and midnight GMT)