KickassTorrents’ Connections to the US Doomed the Site

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Following the shutdown of KickassTorrents, the next pretenders to the torrent throne will be weighing up the pros and cons of pirate life. There are lessons to be learned for those willing to take the risk, but can any setup be truly bullet-proof when challenged by the US Government?

katTo the huge disappointment of millions of BitTorrent users, KickassTorrents disappeared this week following an investigation by the Department of Homeland Security in the United States.

With a huge hole now present at the top of the torrent landscape, other sites plus interested groups and individuals will be considering their options. Step up their game and take over the top slot? Cautiously maintain the status quo? Or pull out altogether…

Make no mistake, this is a game of great reward, matched only by the risk. If the DHS complaint is to be believed, Kickass made dozens of millions of euros, enough to tempt even the nerviest of individuals. But while that might attract some, is avoiding detection almost impossible these days?

The complaint against KAT shows that while not inevitable, it’s becoming increasingly difficult. It also shows that carelessness plays a huge part in undermining security and that mistakes made by others in the past are always worth paying attention to.

Servers in the United States

Perhaps most tellingly, in the first instance KAT failed to learn from the ‘mistakes’ made by Megaupload. While the cases are somewhat dissimilar, both entities chose to have a US presence for at least some of their servers. This allowed US authorities to get involved. Not a great start.

“[Since 2008], KAT has relied on a network of computer servers around the world to operate, including computer servers located in Chicago, Illinois,” the complaint against the site reads.

The Chicago server weren’t trivial either.

“According to a reverse DNS search conducted by the hosting company on or about May 5, 2015, that server was the mail client ‘mail.kat.ph’.”

Torrent site mail servers. In the United States. What could go possibly go wrong?

In a word? Everything. In January 2016, DHS obtained a search warrant and cloned the Chicago servers. Somewhat unsurprisingly this gifted investigating agent Jared Der-Yeghiayan (the same guy who infiltrated Silk Road) valuable information.

“I located multiple files that contained unique user information, access logs, and other information. These files include a file titled ‘passwd’ located in the ‘etc’ directory, which was last accessed on or about January 13, 2016, and which identified the users who had access to the operating system,” Der-Yeghiayan said.

Servers in Canada

KAT also ran several servers hosted with Montreal-based Netelligent Hosting Services. There too, KAT was vulnerable.

In response to a Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty request, in April 2016 the Royal Canadian Mounted Police obtained business records associated with KAT’s account and made forensic images of the torrent site’s hard drives.

Why KAT chose Netelligent isn’t clear, but the site should have been aware that the hosting company would be forced to comply with law enforcement requests. After all, it had happened at least once before in a case involving Swedish torrent site, Sparvar.

Mistakes at the beginning

When pirate sites first launch, few admins expect them to become world leaders. If they did, they’d probably approach things a little differently at the start. In KAT’s case, alleged founder Artem Vaulin registered several of the site’s domains in his own name, information that was happily handed to the DHS by US-based hosting company GoDaddy.

Vaulin also used a Gmail account, operated by US-based Google. The complaint doesn’t explicitly say that Google handed over information, but it’s a distinct possibility. In any event, an email sent from that account in 2009 provided a helpful bridge to investigators.

“I changed my gmail. now it’s [email protected],” it read.

Forging further connections from his private email accounts to those operated from KAT, in 2012 Vaulin sent ‘test’ emails from KAT email addresses to his Apple address. This, HSI said, signaled the point that Vaulin began using KAT emails for business.

No time to relax, even socially

In addition to using an email account operated by US-based Apple, (in which HSI found Vaulin’s passport and driver’s license details, plus his banking info), the Ukranian also had an iTunes account.

Purchases he made there were logged by Apple, down to the IP address. Then, thanks to information provided by US-based Facebook (notice the recurring Stateside theme?), HSI were able to match that same IP address against a login to KAT’s Facebook page.

Anonymous Bitcoin – not quite

If the irony of the legitimate iTunes purchases didn’t quite hit the spot, the notion that Bitcoin could land someone in trouble should tick all the boxes. According to the complaint, US-based Bitcoin exchange Coinbase handed over information on Vaulin’s business to HSI.

“Records received from the bitcoin exchange company Coinbase revealed that the KAT Bitcoin Donation Address sent bitcoins it received to a user’s account maintained at Coinbase. This account was identified as belonging to Artem Vaulin located in Kharkov, Ukraine,” it reads.

Final thoughts

For a site that the US Government had always insisted was operating overseas, KickassTorrents clearly had a huge number of United States connections. This appears to have made the investigation much more simple than it would have been had the site and its owner had maintained a presence solely in Eastern Europe.

Why the site chose to maintain these connections despite the risks might never be answered, but history has shown us time and again that US-based sites are not only vulnerable but also open to the wrath of the US Government. With decades of prison time at stake, that is clearly bad news.

But for now at least, Vaulin is being detained in Poland, waiting to hear of his fate. Whether or not he’ll quickly be sent to the United States is unclear, but it seems unlikely that a massively prolonged Kim Dotcom-style extradition battle is on the agenda. A smaller one might be, however.

While the shutdown of KAT and the arrest of its owner came out of the blue, the writing has always been on the wall. The shutdown is just one of several momentous ‘pirate’ events in the past 18 months including the closure (and resurrection) of The Pirate Bay, the dismantling of the main Popcorn Time fork, and the end of YTS/YIFY.

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