How The FBI Dismantled a BitTorrent Community

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On June 25th 2005, the homepage of the tracker displayed an ominous message. Thousands of members trying to log in to get a sneak peak at a leaked copy of Star Wars: Episode 3 were surprised and confused in equal numbers. Had the FBI really raided one of the largest BitTorrent communities and put up a badly made Word document, or were hackers to blame?

There’s no denying it was a very confusing day. For a while the site just didn’t respond for me. The rumors were starting to circulate. Had the EliteTorrents site really been raided by the FBI? Many furious refreshes later and there it was, a crude webpage with a blood-red background, with a DOJ graphic on one side and an FBI one on the other. In the middle sat part of the EliteTorrents banner (enlarge).

elite torrents fbi

The page was so crude that it gave the tens of thousands of worried users a little relief – if the FBI was really behind the shutdown they would’ve made a better job of the page design than this, surely? The conclusion I reached along with many others was that this was the work of hackers. Site staff reported that the DNS had been hacked, which at the time was actually relatively good news, as reports started to come in that the site now traced to the Department of Homeland Security.

For many sci-fi fans the site downtime was really badly timed, as they (and just about everyone else) were desperate to get on the site to get the leaked ‘ViSA‘ workprint copy of Star Wars: Episode III. But as time passed you could feel the mood change. Most people knew deep down something was wrong but just didn’t want to admit it. Operation D-Elite had been and now EliteTorrents was gone.

When the confirmation came, it did so via a notice in the site’s IRC channel: “A few of the admins have been raided by the FBI, sorry, but ET [EliteTorrents] is now closed”, closely followed by an announcement by Acting Assistant Attorney General John C. Richter of the Criminal Division, Homeland Security Assistant Secretary for Immigration and Customs Enforcement Michael J. Garcia, and Assistant Director Louis M. Reigel of the FBI’s Cyber Division:

This morning, agents of the FBI and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) executed 10 search warrants across the United States against leading members of a technologically sophisticated P2P network known as Elite Torrents. Employing technology known as BitTorrent, the Elite Torrents network attracted more than 133,000 members and, in the last four months, allegedly facilitated the illegal distribution of more than 17,800 titles – including movies and software – which were downloaded 2.1 million times.

BitTorrent sites had been shut down before in the United States, such as the LokiTorrent case, but none had been closed down by the FBI – something had changed. The recently introduced Family Entertainment and Copyright Act meant that when EliteTorrents admin Sk0t uploaded Star Wars: Episode III, he didn’t just commit a civil infringement, it was now a serious crime. The huge popularity of the movie meant it was downloaded at least 10,000 times during the first 24 hours with some claiming in the region of 20,000 downloads worldwide, and this was reportedly enough for the MPAA to finally lose its patience and make good on its successful infiltration of the site.

The federal agents involved in the case executed 10 warrants and took control of the server. In a recent interview, Scott McCausland, aka sk0t, an administrator of the site told Slyck: “Star Wars was uploaded… and then it was game over. I awoke one morning to see the FBI warning on the ET site, and thought to myself “Damn, I think we are screwed.” It didn’t dawn on me at the time that I could be a target. I didn’t upload a lot, just a couple movies. But I did Star Wars, so… Then, at 6AM I am woken up to the sounds of 6 FBI, 6 ICE, and 2 Local Police at my front door. They come in, confiscate everything, and that begins my 2+ years saga.”

In the BitTorrent community many people were absolutely furious at the loss of their favorite site, with a passion not seen since the demise of Suprnova. Thousands of others were panicking. Forums and IRC were awash with theories of who had been arrested so far and who would be targeted next by the FBI, and why. Would it be limited to admins? What about the uploaders? Would regular users be chased down? In the end, around 130,000 users had nothing to worry about but some admins and uploaders weren’t so lucky.

In 2006, Scott McCausland pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit criminal copyright infringement and one count of criminal copyright infringement for his uploading of Star Wars: Episode III. He received jail time and home confinement and on his release told TorrentFreak: “After 5 months in prison, and another 5 months on home confinement, I have just one obstacle left: my 1.5 years years left of probation.”

Fellow site admin Grant Stanley, then aged 23, pleaded guilty to the same offenses as Scott and received the same sentence with the addition of a $3,000 fine. Other admins and uploaders who pleaded guilty included Sam Kuonen, then aged 24, 22 year old Scott D. Harvanek and An Duc Do, aged 25.

Not everyone arrested in connection with the case pleaded guilty. Daniel Dove, an administrator of the site, opted for a ‘not guilty’ plea. For Dove, the gamble hasn’t paid off. The jury was told that Dove was responsible for managing and recruiting the crucial ‘uploaders’ on the site (original seeders) and that he also operated a server which was used to distribute pirate material. The jury believed it and found him guilty on one count each of conspiracy and felony copyright infringement.

Dove will be sentenced on September 9th 2008 where he, like some of the other admins, faces a maximum sentence of 10 years in jail, but is likely to receive substantially less.

Historically, the EliteTorrents case is an important one. Many BitTorrent trackers used to be hosted in the United States, but had been essentially scared or pressured to leave, largely due to direct or indirect MPAA pressure. Right up until the creation of the Family Entertainment Act, any action against sites would have taken place in the civil domain. The act coming into force gave the FBI the green light to get involved, much to the delight of the MPAA who possessed significant investigative powers but lacked the killer ability to quickly shut down a non-compliant site.

The MPAA loves to issue a stream of data about how much piracy went on at EliteTorrents (and a lot did go on), but it was the seeding of a movie, a single pre-release movie that eventually killed the entire site and caused the imprisonment of the admin team. Clearly the leak did nothing to hurt the movie as it went on to gross nearly $110m in its first weekend and has nearly reached a worldwide total of $1bn. But we knew that anyway.

Despite the massive resources at the disposal of the FBI and supposed importance of the case, the person that originally leaked the Episode 3 workprint copy direct from Lucas is nowhere to be seen.


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