AT&T Gets Patent to Monitor and Track File-Sharing Traffic

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Internet provider AT&T has patented a new technology that allows the company to accurately track content being shared via BitTorrent and other P2P networks. The company explains that the technology can be utilized to detect pirated downloads and combat congestion on its network. Whether the company is already using the system to track infringing content, or has plans to do so, is unknown.

attIn the U.S. alone, BitTorrent transfers account for one-third of all upstream traffic during peak hours.

This massive network use has received plenty of interest from Internet providers over the years, but AT&T is planning to take it to the next level.

A new patent awarded to the Intellectual Property division of the Texas-based company describes a system that can accurately measure the flow of both legitimate and infringing file-sharing traffic.

Titled “Method and apparatus for automated end to end content tracking in peer-to-peer environments,” the patent covers an advanced monitoring system that can detect how often a certain title is downloaded. AT&T says this information can then be used to address network congestion or counter piracy.

The flow-chart below shows the various steps involved in the detection and tracking process.

AT&T Torrent tracker


The system described by AT&T focuses specifically on torrents, which are gathered from search engines and other websites through RSS feeds. Discovered content is collected in a database and the system then downloads the torrent and records information on the people who are downloading.

In the patent AT&T notes that peer-to-peer traffic accounts for a large percentage of traffic generated on the Internet, some of which results in a loss of revenue for copyright holders.

“For example, some content may be legitimately purchased and downloaded by users via P2P. However, some content may be pirated and illegally copied and distributed P2P violating copyright laws and reducing revenue for the content producers and distributors,” the company explains.

AT&T’s system will be able to detect what is most downloaded on P2P-networks, suggesting that this information can be used to track and counter piracy.

“The present disclosure automatically tracks content that is downloaded in a peer-to-peer environment. In doing so, the present disclosure automatically identifies the most popular content titles to monitor and tracks and identifies a number of unique peers for each of the content titles.”

In addition, there is a content analysis component that will verify whether the downloaded files are indeed what the title suggests. This will be useful to filter out spam files and viruses that are mislabeled as popular videos or music.

“Based upon the verification, the list may be modified if the content titles actually being downloaded do not match the content titles in the list. For example, the content titles in the list may be looking for a recently released movie; however, the actually downloaded content titles may be a television show that had an identical title or may be a peer attempting to disseminate a virus under a disguise of the content title and so forth.”

The patent doesn’t go into detail on the intended purpose of the tracking, but AT&T specifically mentions that it can be used to track infringing downloads and address network congestion.

“The present disclosure may be used to determine which content titles are being illegally distributed and by whom. In another example, the present disclosure may be used to determine which content title downloads are creating the most network congestion. This information may in turn be used for capacity planning and the like,” the patent reads.

While there are many outfits that track BitTorrent and other file-sharing traffic, until now we are not aware of any ISPs that have shown interest in this type of monitoring. AT&T is certainly the first company to be granted a patent for such a specific P2P monitoring system.

It’s worth noting that AT&T participates in the six-strikes copyright alert system where P2P users are also monitored. The main difference is that under that program the monitoring is carried out by a the third-party company which only tracks a list of titles supplied by the MPAA and RIAA.

Whether the provider has intentions to actively scan for and throttle pirated content being shared using BitTorrent is unknown. With the patented system it could certainly do so, and if it targets infringing traffic only it does not violate FCC’s net neutrality rules.


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