No VPN on Earth Can Protect Careless Pirates

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Many people believe that by simply firing up a VPN their entire real-life identity can be instantly masked from outsiders. The truth is, however, that no amount of encryption or IP address obfuscation can save those who leave huge trails in their regular Internet activities.

pirate-cardLast year, Philip Danks, a man from the West Midlands, UK, went into a local cinema and managed to record the movie Fast and Furious 6. He later uploaded that content to the Internet.

After pleading guilty, this week Wolverhampton Crown Court sentenced him to an unprecedented 33 months in prison.

The Federation Against Copyright Theft are no doubt extremely pleased with this result. After their successful private prosecution, the Hollywood-affiliated anti-piracy group is now able to place Danks’ head on a metaphorical pike, a clear warning to other would-be cammers. But just how difficult was this operation?

There’s often a lot of mystery attached to the investigations process in a case like this. How are individuals like Danks tracked and found? Have FACT placed spies deep into file-sharing sites? Are the authorities sniffing traffic and breaking pirates’ VPN encryption?

Or are they spending half an hour with Google and getting most of it handed to them on a plate? In Danks’ case, that appears to be exactly what happened.

Something that many millions of people use online is a nickname, and Danks was no exception. His online alias in the torrenting scene was TheCod3r, and as shown below it is clearly visible in the release title.

Kick-up

The idea behind aliases is that they provide a way to mask a real name. Military uses aside, adopting an alternative communications identity was something popularized in the 70s with the advent of Citizens Band radio. The practice continues online today, with many people forced to adopt one to register with various services.

However, what many in the file-sharing scene forget is that while aliases on a torrent site might be useful, they become as identifying as a real name when used elsewhere in ‘regular’ life. The screenshot below shows one of Danks’ first huge mistakes.

Fish-Google

Clicking that link on dating site Plenty of Fish (POF) reveals a whole range of information about a person who, at the very least, uses the same online nickname as Danks. There’s no conclusive proof that it’s the same person, but several pieces of information begin to build a picture.

In his POF profile, Danks reveals his city as being Willenhall, a small town situated in an area known locally as the Black Country. What FACT would’ve known soon after the movie leaked online was which cinema it had been recorded in. That turned out to be a Showcase cinema, just a few minutes up the road from Willenhall in the town of Walsall.

Also revealed on Danks’ POF profile is his full name and age. When you have that, plus a town, you can often find a person’s address on the UK’s Electoral Register.

It’s also trivial to find social networking pages. Not only do pictures on Danks’ POF profile match those on his Facebook page, he also has a revealing movie item listed in his interests section.

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Of course, none of this in itself is enough to build a decent case, but when you have the police on board as FACT did, things can be sped up somewhat. On May 23, 2013 Danks was raided and then, just two days later, he did something quite astonishing.

Posting on his Facebook page, the then 24-year-old took to his Facebook account (he has two) to mock the makers of Fast and Furious 6.

“Seven billion people and I was the first. F*** you Universal Pictures,” he wrote.

Also amazing was Danks’ apparent disregard for the predicament he was in. On May 10, 2013, Danks again took to Facebook, this time to advertise that he was selling copies of movies including Robocop and Captain America.

sale

This continued distribution of copyrighted material particularly aggravated the Court at his sentencing hearing this week, with Danks’ behavior being described as “bold, arrogant and cocksure offending.”

While the list of events above clearly shows a catalog of errors that some might even find amusing, the desire of many pirates to utilize the same nickname across many sites is a common one employed by some of the biggest in the game.

Once these and other similar indicators migrate across into real-life identities and activities (and the ever-present Facebook account of course), joining the dots is not difficult – especially for the police and outfits like FACT. And once that happens, no amount of VPN encryption of lack of logging is going to put the genie back in the bottle.

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