If you can't beat them, send them bad packets instead...

By Andrew Davidson
on Feb. 21, 2023

Pirate Laptop I'll leave all the incriminating evidence out of this post, but will willingly admit to being a pirate. No, I don't sail the high seas with a eye patch and parrot, I'm a media pirate; I 'steal' TV shows and Movies.

I'm too old for movie theaters (and have caught on to their expensive candy grift long ago), won't be encumbered with subscriptions to streaming services where there's still nothing on, and am truthfully trying to quit the addiction to Hollywood and their endless supply of forgettable actor resumes disguised as entertainment.

I ♥ BitTorrent

With a robust peer-to-peer network of simultaneous uploading and downloading shared files, BitTorrent is the protocol I've always admired and abused. Why download from one server somewhere miles away from you when you could download from everyone who has the same file and are closer to you? The protocol is resilient and smart, and the collective 'many' makes quick work of downloading, even for multi-gigabyte large files like high-resolution movies.

Hollywood hates BitTorrent - it's easy to 'rip' a DVD and turn it into an easily shareable MP4 video file and turn one measly sale into hundreds (if not thousands) of lost 'future sales' to folks who otherwise enjoyed it for free. As a content creator, I get it.

BitTorrent is under attack.

In order to stop casual pirating initially, Hollywood studios would participate in BitTorrent downloads with the only intention of collecting evidence to be used in court. They'd wait for their copyrighted Intellectual Property to show up on popular BitTorrent websites, then join the swarm, only collecting IP addresses of those downloaders who'd completed the download and were now 'seeding' the file.

Armed with this information, Hollywood studios would send ominous copyright notices to dimwitted pirates who would download questionable content on public IP addresses that could be traced back to them. The pirate's ISP would gladly dime them out, and offer full names and addresses of the offenders. I have found these pithy threats were best ignored - not worth the lawyer's time in court against individual defendants, more of a cash grab to make it go away. (Of course, avoiding them altogether with a VPN is the easiest solution!)

Hollywood is back, this time with a more dastardly ploy. All of my latest attempt to download highly ranked and popular new movie releases from popular public BitTorrent trackers has been flooded with 10-20x bad packets, resulting in a gigabytes of wasted bandwidth! For example, I've linked to screencaps of some recent torrents - one with a whopping 1400% of thrown away packets (the movie was also terrible too!). When I download from private trackers, I rarely get 1% bad packets.

The Real 'Bad Actors'

My theory is that there is a swarm of 'bad actors' in the BitTorrent swarm whose only task is to throw monkey wrenches into the otherwise smooth process of downloading. I think they pretend to be Seeds (i.e. members of the BitTorrent swarm who have the entire file and are now sharing it with others), and then send garbage packets to anyone who requests them, and verify any garbage packet as good (using other bad actors to verify their bad results). With conflicting results being sent from actual Seeds and 'Bad Seeds', each data packet is suspect, as is the entire file. The trackers don't know which client is good or bad, just that they're all part of the swarm.

Even after a file is downloaded completely (and my BitTorrent client thinks it has the entire file and acts like a Seed), I'll verify the 'completed' download with other seeds, it'll start throwing away bad packets and turn it back to a 'currently downloading' file. Repeatedly. I'm unsure of the minutia of how the files are verified against peers, but it's more gum in the engine!

Downloads that used to take minutes now take days. Trying to figure out which clients are the bad actors in the swarm is a tedious (and possibly impossible) prospect. It's a nefarious move, but certainly effective in delaying casual gratification.

To be clear - this is not off-the-shelf software that they downloaded. This is a piece of custom BitTorrent software that they're using, distributing and running on multiple machines. It probably selects from a variety of popular BitTorrent clients to emulate, and does it silently. I'd be willing to bet you simply add a few URL's and the search engine takes over and finds copyrighted content automatically. They aren't there to destroy the network, just make it awash with bad data.

June 2023 Update: Looks like a way to extract data overage payments from the average pirate via charges explicitly detailed here. (from one huge ISP at least...). Willing to bet these fees are paid directly to rights holder organizations as a pirate tax...

What To Do?

Alas, I'm at a loss here; hence why I'm blogging about it. I can complete the downloads (eventually), but it's now terribly inconvenient, and if I were paying for bandwidth, it's be quickly unaffordable (40gb a day of bad data!). Obviously, sticking to private BitTorrent trackers that are not awash with freeloaders will help the most, but that's not easy either.