Together with Cox and Warner Cable, Comcast has aided in the development of a new piracy tracking tool. Named BitStalker, researchers claim it can effectively collect evidence on millions of file-sharers with relative ease. Operators of large BitTorrent trackers have their doubts.
For years the RIAA and other copyright holders have been sending copyright infringement notices to ISPs, requesting they forward them to their customers. ISPs including Comcast have always kindly complied with these requests, but remained a neutral party.
It therefore came as a surprise when we found out that three major US ISPs – Comcast, Cox and Warner Cable – have been funding research which aims to help copyright holders track down and gather evidence against BitTorrent pirates more efficiently.
Unlike most of the ‘passive’ BitTorrent tracking tools that are in fashion today, BitStalker uses an ‘active’ method through which they can actually prove that the BitTorrent client associated with an IP-address is sharing files. Where the passive methods wrongfully accuse 1 in 10 downloaders, BitStalker promises to avoid such false positives.
The researchers who developed BitStalker further claim (pdf) that their tool is much more effective than the current competition, as it would allow copyright holders to get information on 20 million BitTorrent users for a bargain price of $12.40. What remains unclear, however, is why three large ISPs are interested in funding this project.
It is no secret that the RIAA has been pushing Comcast, Cox and other ISPs to take stricter measures against copyright infringers, including the ultimate sanction of terminating customers’ Internet access. However, thus far the ISPs have largely maintained their neutral position as information carriers.
Whether the funding of BitStalker’s research is a signal that this may change is open for speculation. Another argument for ISPs to join could be that they want to protect their customers from receiving copyright infringement notices in error.
Regarding the BitStalker method of tracking BitTorrent users, we can say that it is not as revolutionary as the researchers portray it. TorrentFreak spoke to several people who are currently operating the largest BitTorrent trackers on the Internet and none of them was impressed by BitStalker’s technology.
If BitStalker is indeed implemented the large scale monitoring will have to be executed from thousands of IP-addresses. Most trackers have rules in place so that one single IP-address will be banned from the tracker if it connects to too many torrents.
Similarly, if BitStalker was put on a cloud service like the research suggests, it wouldn’t take long before these IP-ranges would appear in block-lists, rendering BitStalker useless.
If we add to this that BitStalker’s active BitTorrent tracking method will require users to be ‘connectible’, which a large percentage of users aren’t, this means that it will result in many false negatives. The researchers report that they could only connect to less than half of all available peers, which might be caused in the main by the connectability issue.
Whatever the motivations are for Comcast and the other ISPs to fund this project, the good news is that less people will be accused of uploading something they haven’t. Whether BitStalker will really be that more efficient depends on one’s definition of efficiency. For now, we doubt that it will result in a global BitTorrent crackdown.