Busted By The FBI: The Life Of An Elite Teen BitTorrent Uploader

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Releasers and torrent racers are the select few counted on by millions to bring the latest movies, music and video games to the wider Internet in record time. One such person, a 15-year-old school kid, eventually gained access to elite piracy sites and went on to become the top uploader on one of the world's most famous BitTorrent trackers. But how did the buzz of the elite compare to being hunted down by a Patriot Act-empowered FBI?

In the early part of the last decade when they were still the innocent side of 15-years-old, one schoolfriend showed another an Iomega ZIP drive (right) full of ‘warez’ – games and software with a big fat zero written on their price tag.

Having never seen anything like it before, James (as we shall call him for now) became hooked, and quickly began to display a trait inherent in many addicted file-sharers.

“I simply couldn’t get enough,” he told TorrentFreak. “It was more fun downloading and sharing the stuff with all my friends then actually using it or playing the actual games.”

Having become inspired by these simple beginnings, James began chatting with other like-minded people on warez sites and ICQ, going on to share warez via PUBS, FTP-enabled servers conveniently left open by companies with more bandwidth than security sense.

Sharing files wasn’t a simple process back then and James took exception when Napster began dumbing down the process.

“We hated it, simply despised it because it made a mockery of the hard work we put in to obtain all these different warez,” he recalls.

But despite these early bad feelings towards Napster, the future would eventually see James become a facilitator of even easier ways of downloading. Not for just his friends, but for more than a hundred thousand people.

After working his way up to become one of the top members on the GraveyardFXP warez board, James says he became a moderator of DelusionalFXP. It was there, on their IRC channel, that he would meet people whose new project would suck him in and change his life forever. At some point along the line, ‘James’ became better known to his peers as StonyVision, and he was invited to join a new project being set up by, among others, a fellow pirate known as Sk0t.

Under Sk0t’s leadership, a torrent site called Elite Torrents was taking shape and preparing itself for an eventual membership of some 130,000 active users. It would also become the only US-based BitTorrent tracker ever to be busted by the FBI and ICE.

Elite Torrents

After he’d installed BitComet and began sharing content in February 2004, staff on Elite noticed something very appealing about StonyVision – his impressive upload capability. StonyVision told us he’d “followed instructions” on how to use two instead of the regular one modem his cable connection usually allowed, which gave him business-standard upload speeds. When you’re delivering content on BitTorrent, upload bandwidth is king, and Elite wanted some of Stony’s.

But as file-sharers are often heard to complain, you can never have enough bandwidth, so Stony acquired a 100mbit server at The Planet in Texas and began seeding his files from there. Once around 150 of Elite’s users had grabbed his latest release he’d begin releasing his next torrent, usually the very latest movies. His performance eventually meant that he became a member of staff, later going on to organize other Elite Torrents uploaders.

Of course, StonyVision needed content to share and he wasted no time in getting it directly from source – The Scene. He’d gained access to this elite network through his contacts at DelusionalFXP and ended up adding his own server to something called T.O.P. or “Tower of Power” – 53 dedicated 100mbit servers acting as a single giant RAID FTP piracy site. But still Stony needed more.

“At that point I was on four or five top sites, and my main interest was always movies. I loved movies and still do,” Stony explained. “Since my server was tied up I ended up renting two more, one to race with and another for seeding content on Elite Torrents.”

In common with his more old-school peers, Stony saw himself as something of a Robin Hood, “taking from the rich and giving to Average Joe”, and reveled in the positive feedback left by up to 130,000 Elite Torrents users.

But the environment in the United States had become increasingly unfriendly towards The Scene. The FBI and DoJ’s Operation Fastlink was underway and there was a growing fear that torrent sites would be targeted next. Stony sensed the tension and stepped down from the site’s staff around April 2005. He was 19-years-old – and too late.

Elite Torrents and its operators were already being watched and no amount of IP-address obfuscation would prove effective in hiding Stony or his fellow staffers on the site.

“Truth be told I did hide my IP and was the hardest one to find but [the FBI] used the Patriot Act and came up with an asinine amount of money lost to these companies and the movie industry and labeled me as a possible domestic terrorist who was conspiring to commit copyright infringement,” Stony explains.

“I woke up to banging on the door over and over, the dogs started barking. I got up thinking who’s the asshole banging on my door at 6am? Next thing I know there’s 10+ FBI agents in my house. I started laughing at first – I thought it was a joke – until the reality sunk in.”

It was 25th May 2005 and Operation D-Elite, which was to claim several admins and staff members at Elite Torrents, was underway.

“That was the day of days, I was in total and utter dismay and couldn’t even wrap my head around what had happened. I had no clue what was happening to the others. I lawyered up immediately which in itself is a funny story. I opened up the Yellow Pages, looked under ‘lawyer’ and there it was – an ad with a firm that had dealt with computer crime.

“I think I need a lawyer,” Stony told the gentleman on the other end who inquired “Why?”

“Well, the FBI had just raided my house along with a group they called ICE,” Stony responded.

A few awkward seconds of silence was followed by: “How fast can you get here?”

What came next was mountains of litigation and Stony being told to expect the worst – 5 years in prison. The pressure proved too much and Stony went off the rails, turning to alcohol.

In December 2006 he would learn his fate for the uploading of 53 movies, 6 pieces of software and 10 video games. The government demanded a prison sentence in order to deter others from infringement. To Stony’s huge relief, they didn’t get their way.

“Luckily for me I had the most liberal federal judge there was at the time. I was given a fine of $3,500, 6 months house arrest, community service and 3 years probation in which I was not allowed to touch a computer. I had somehow escaped doing time and the U.S attorney was furious.”

But despite avoiding prison, Stony says that he’s still paid a price.

“It’s been the bane of my existence and yet made me who I am. I continued on a self destructive path for quite some time doing crazy things, still working out, getting in bar fights. Truth be told I’ve been to hell and back, stared the devil in the face with its trillions of dollars of influence (RIAA, MPAA) and laughed and walked away.”

Stony says that confessing to a double felony on job applications hinders him, but the support of a new woman in his life has helped tremendously. So how are things today?

“I of course no longer pirate anything anymore as I’m sure I’m still on numerous watch lists. Its simply fun to look every now and again,” says Stony.

“My story isn’t one of inspiration but one of caution. It could happen to anyone out there. I know people are thinking ‘nah, not me’, but that’s what I thought too and now here we are.”

Stony told us that he recently got back online again with his own computer and was inspired by the huge anti-SOPA and PIPA campaigns.

“Thanks to everyone who spoke out on Internet blackout day. It really did give me goosebumps to see people finally stand up and be heard,” he concludes.

Sk0t’s story and those of his fellow operators and uploaders can be found here and here.


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