Freelance Torrent Site Admin’s Life Still in Turmoil, 5 Years After Arrest

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In 2017, a special police force arrested the alleged mastermind behind french torrent site T411. The Ukrainian man, who lives in Sweden, describes himself differently as a freelance systems operator. Today "Alex" is sharing his account of what happened, including the dramatic arrest, a family tragedy, and his encounters with pirating police officers.

“I woke up to the sounds of a door breaking down. I got out of bed and saw screaming people running towards me upstairs. I’ve tried to close the door to the bedroom. My wife woke up and started screaming loudly in panic…”

“My first thought was that these people were robbers, or maybe worse…”

t411During the summer of 2017, the French authorities booked a massive success with the shutdown of T411, a popular semi-private torrent tracker with over five million registered members.

Despite France’s three-strikes law, better known as Hadopi, the site managed to gain a spot among the 50 most-visited sites in the country. That reign ended abruptly, which came as a shock to many regular users.

There were other surprises as well. When the news of the shutdown became public it turned out that T411 wasn’t strictly managed by a French team. In fact, two of the alleged “brains” behind the operation were Ukrainians, while the site itself was hosted on Swedish servers.

Following the initial arrests, the authorities haven’t released any additional information. And now, nearly five years later, it turns out that one of the key Ukrainian suspects is still in limbo, unsure whether he will have his day in court.

Today, the former systems operator of T411 is willing to share his story with us. This is done on condition of anonymity, to avoid issues with future employers. We agreed to this as we think it’s important to share his story with a broader public, and will refer to him as “Alex” instead.

It’s important to realize that this is a one-sided account and TF was not able to independently verify all the statements. That said, this story isn’t as much about details as it is about feelings, as will soon become apparent.

This is not an attempt to create sympathy for Alex or judge who’s right or wrong. That’s up to the courts. The main goal is to show the personal stories behind a 2017 headline most people have long forgotten.

A Succesful Startup

Alex’s involvement with T411 starts in 2009. At the time he was still living in Ukraine, where he worked as the technical chief of a system administration department at a large outsourcing company. The Ukrainian company worked for clients worldwide and T411 came in as a regular new project.

The owner of T411 wanted to optimize the site and servers because the site was growing rapidly growing at the time. After inspecting the servers, Alex decided to take the lead on the project, engaging in direct communications with the owner.

From a technical perspective, Alex saw the torrent site as a challenge that required some non-standard solutions. However, he never really discussed anything non-technical with the owner and couldn’t understand much of the front end, as it was all in French.

In 2010, Alex left the outsourcing company and moved to Sweden, hoping to find new opportunities in Europe. When he notified T411 about this decision the torrent site asked him to continue his work on a freelance basis. Without any objections from his former employer, that’s exactly what he did.

In the years that followed the partnership continued. Alex took the lead making the backend run smoothly and even hired additional freelancers when needed. It felt like being part of a successful startup.

“It worked like a small successful startup. I never hid my involvement in this project and didn’t treat it as if I was doing something illegal. I was not involved in managing the content of the site, that part was done by French moderators,” Alex tells us.

“I was proud of this project because I’ve implemented its complex technical setup via non-standard edge technologies. I still have an old copy of my CV from 2013, which I used to find a job in Sweden, and t411 was in the top list of projects I’ve described there.”

Alex continued working on other projects aside from T411, but the former took up most of his time. The fact that copyright holders were complaining about the torrent tracker didn’t come as a surprise though. In fact, Alex regularly had to remove torrent files from the database in response to takedown notices.

The site’s owner said that it was too time-consuming for moderators to remove all reported torrents through the admin panel so Alex had to do it directly from the database. At some point that became too much hassle as well, so a special tool was created to automate things.

“Incoming DMCA emails were automatically recognized and all torrents in the list were removed from the site,” Alex tells us. “This system made me believe that I didn’t do something illegal and that the site respects copyright.”

Rightsholders and law enforcement officials clearly saw things differently, as would soon become apparent to Alex as well.

The Terrorist Arrest

On a summer’s morning in 2017, roughly around 7am, a handful of police cars rolled up to a quiet neighborhood in a Swedish town. A special police force, from a department that also handles terrorist threats, was about enter a house where a family with an 8-month-old baby was still fast asleep.

“June 27, 2017, was the worst day of my whole life,” Alex says.

“I woke up to the sounds of a door breaking down. I got out of bed and saw screaming people running towards me upstairs. I’ve tried to close the door to the bedroom. My wife woke up and started screaming loudly in panic…”

“My first thought was that these people were robbers, or maybe worse…”

After the initial panic, Alex was taken to a police car where he was told that his arrest was related to T411. And to his surprise, the officers also arrested his wife. Meanwhile, the house was searched for evidence of potential crimes.

The arrested couple were taken into custody where they were interrogated in detail. While Alex was clearly involved with the site, his wife wasn’t. The problem was that Alex had used her PayPal account for his freelance work as Ukrainian accounts couldn’t receive incoming payments at the time.

This tragic mistake resulted in a family drama that was nothing short of a nightmare for the young family.

The Baby

While Alex and his wife were in custody a neighbor took their 8-month-old son. After a few hours, the police came by to pick up the baby with someone from social care. They informed the neighbor that the boy would probably not see his parents again for a long time.

The baby was then placed in a temporary social care facility. Luckily, however, the PayPal issue was sorted out and Alex’s wife was released from custody and reunited with the baby two days later.

Looking back, emotions still run high.

“After my wife took him back, he stopped accepting breastfeeding because of the stress. This is how police actions interrupted the natural process between the mother and her son. Sorry for the emotions here, but I just can’t accept this,” Alex tells us.

As it turns out, law enforcement had already arranged a foster family for the baby in advance, assuming that the couple would remain locked up for a long time.

“What frustrates me and my wife the most is that Swedish police prepared the arrest for more than one month and they didn’t even check if we have any relatives in Ukraine who can take care of our son,” Alex says.

“If the regular police would have knocked on my door instead, I would have cooperated. That would be the same result for them, but without a life trauma for our whole family.”

French Prison

The developer eventually spent about two weeks in Swedish custody where he was allowed to see his family. This was hard and emotional but things were about to take a turn for the worse – Sweden had agreed to extradite Alex to France.

The transfer to France happened July 14, which is a national holiday. This means that the process was slow. Eventually in Paris, he was put in a dirty, cold jail room to spend a night in custody with some rather unpleasant company.

During his transfer, Alex also spoke to a few French police officers who were all too familiar with the torrent site.

“I had some short conversations with the police officers who transferred me. They didn’t speak much English but enough to tell me that they used t411. They said that it was a nice site before the shutdown and that they had to switch to another site.”

“They also told me how they got Hadopi claims at home, but simply ignored them. That was fun to hear,” Alex adds.

Time in prison was tough but Alex was happy that there were some Russian-speaking people who he could talk with. While these were seasoned criminals, it still felt good.

“The prisoners in my department were mainly connected to drugs crimes, robberies, and a few persons were killers. Luckily most of them were not aggressive,” Alex says.

“I shared my cell with a big drugs dealer, who was convicted to seven years in prison and was waiting for an appeal. He was a really kind and well-organized person, helped me with a lot of things, explained the prison rules, and helped me with filling out various papers in French.”

Unfortunately, there was no option to meet with his family; no phone calls either. They were able to communicate through letters but these could take a long time to arrive because they first had to be analyzed.

In addition to missing his family, Alex also missed life and coding. The newspapers and TV were both in French so he felt disconnected. Meanwhile, he could almost feel his coding skills degrade.

Eventually, Alex’s first official hearing took place after five months and roughly a week later he was released, pending further investigation.

Life in Limbo

After his return to Sweden, Alex focused on his family and work, hoping to put everything that happened behind him. This was easier said than done. On paper the French investigation is still open, which means that things can suddenly take a turn for the worse, at any time.

After nearly five years, there’s still a lot of frozen property. There are claims on the house, car, and a bank account, which are regularly prolonged. Alex’s wife eventually managed to get her part unclaimed, but the family still feels stuck.

“The main effect for our family is that we can’t sell our house to move to another one. We are prisoners in this house and don’t feel complete freedom as regular citizens.”

Ideally, the family would like to buy a new home in a more rural area. They both work from home and would like to enjoy nature more. Also, the old house never felt safe again after the traumatic arrest.

Moving to a new place has also become more of a priority now that the family has grown.

“We got a second kid in 2019 and more recently we took in our parents from Ukraine. They escaped from war and there are no guarantees they will be able to go back in the upcoming years because many of the houses there are destroyed.”

As far as we know, no person has yet been convicted in relation to the T411 investigation. The original owner of the site used a fake name but was presumably from Canada. The authorities tracked him down but it’s unclear whether he was arrested or even located.

Alex has no idea how much longer he will have to wait before his case is finalized but in light of current events in Ukraine, he’s no longer afraid. That’s also why he’s sharing his experiences today.

“I’m ready for a fair trial where the arguments will be reasonable and all evidence is provided,” Alex concludes.

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