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BitTorrent is an excellent way to transfer large files or download legal movies and TV shows from the public domain. When you download from a torrent network, though, you are trusting strangers on the internet. Needless to say, that raises lots of privacy and security concerns.

There are steps you can take to substantially decrease the risks involved with torrenting and other peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing. Most critically, you should learn how to use a VPN for torrenting, which will shield you from the biggest privacy failure in the BitTorrent protocol.

NordVPN
NordVPN

What is Torrenting?

Torrenting is a way of sharing files over a P2P network. When downloading files over the internet, you typically go to a website or app store, click a link, and receive the file from a web server. Instead of a web server, p2p file sharing allows you to download files from one or more peers — via computers just like yours or mine. There are several P2P protocols, but torrenting specifically uses BitTorrent.

Torrenting is not illegal, although its use in sharing copyrighted materials has led many people to think of torrenting itself as a criminal activity. There are several legal uses for BitTorrent, including spreading public-domain works, downloading Linux distributions, or sharing files that are too large for email.

Why Should You Use a VPN When Torrenting?

Most of the time, you don’t know the computers on the other end of your torrent connection. There are bad actors on BitTorrent, just like anywhere else on the internet. Privacy and anonymity are pivotal aspects of internet security, and BitTorrent connections have a substantial privacy flaw. While they may not get your name or email address, every computer you connect to over BitTorrent has access to your IP address, a crucial piece of information that can be used to track your online activity, target you for hacking, and determine your location and internet service provider (ISP).

The BitTorrent protocol requires an IP address to establish a connection, but you don’t have to give them your personal IP. If you connect through a VPN service, other computers on the network will only see the VPN server IP. If you use a trustworthy VPN, this server IP cannot be used to find your IP or track your activity and it will be secured against most IP-based hacks.

Some ISPs don’t look particularly kindly on torrenting. You can blame the people that use BitTorrent for criminal activities, as they ruined it for the rest of us. Most ISPs won’t stop you as long as your torrenting activity is legal, but you may be opening yourself up to extra scrutiny or potentially throttling if you torrent too often. It’s just easier to bypass the whole thing by using a VPN to encrypt your connection, making it harder for your ISP to figure out that you are using BitTorrent at all.

Picking the Right VPN for Torrenting

A poor-quality VPN will only provide the illusion of protection. Two excellent torrenting VPNs are: CyberGhost and NordVPN. If you want to find your own provider instead of using one of these two, there are a few characteristics you’ll want to keep in mind when choosing a torrenting VPN.

  • Torrenting allowed — Some VPNs forbid torrenting or P2P file sharing altogether. Others will limit it to only specified servers. Make sure that you pick a VPN that allows torrenting on some or all of their servers. If they limit torrenting, make sure that they have enough torrenting-allowed servers to avoid overcrowding and that the torrenting servers are easy to find.
  • Encryption — Most VPNs use AES-256 encryption which is excellent, but some still rely on inferior encryption ciphers.
  • VPN protocol — The VPN protocol is another cornerstone of VPN security, as it contains the instructions for how the VPN secures your connection. OpenVPN and WireGuard are both excellent protocols, so you can’t go wrong with a VPN that uses either of those options.
  • Kill switch — When torrenting, you don’t want to risk accidentally dropping your VPN connection. A kill switch ensures that your internet connection will shut down if your VPN fails, guaranteeing that your private data won’t leak out while the VPN reconnects.

    Private Internet Access’ “kill switch”
    Toggling Private Internet Access’ “kill switch” feature on MacOS
  • Provider headquarters — Your privacy is only as good as the people that hold your data, so it’s best to pick a VPN located in a country that has strict data privacy laws. This ensures that they cannot be forced to hand over your usage data.
  • No-logging policy — As long as your VPN holds your usage data, there is always a risk that it could end up in the wrong hands. You want to choose a VPN that has a strict no-logging policy for user data, preferably a policy that has been audited by an independent third party.
  • Speed — Every VPN slows your connection, but some slow it much more than others. If you want to be able to share large files over BitTorrent, you need a VPN that can keep up. Look for a provider with many high-speed servers to choose from.

How to Set Up a VPN for Torrenting

Once you have your VPN picked out, you’ll need to make an account, download the client, and configure and start your VPN. For the most part, you can use standard best practices for setting up your VPN, but there are a few torrent-specific aspects that you should keep in mind.

  • Encryption — Most VPN providers won’t let you change the encryption level, so don’t be surprised if you don’t see a setting for this. If you do, set it to AES-256 or another high-level encryption cipher. You’ll probably find this under either “Connection” or “General” in the settings menu.
  • VPN protocol — If your VPN app lets you change your VPN protocol, make sure that it is set to OpenVPN or WireGuard. On mobile, IKEv2 is also an acceptable option. You’ll usually find the protocol under “Connection” or “General” in the settings menu.

    VyprVPN Encryption Protocol
    VyprVPN Encryption Protocol
  • Kill switch — If your VPN has a kill switch, be sure to activate it before torrenting. This should be under “Connection,” “Security,” or “General” in the settings.
  • VPN server — Make sure that you are connecting to a VPN server that allows torrenting. Some VPN providers also have servers that are optimized for P2P or torrenting, so pick one of those if it is available. Beyond that, you’ll want to pick a server that is high-speed and not overly crowded. You’ll probably have to find that via trial and error, so start with a nearby server unless you need one in a specific geographic region.
    Other security/privacy features — Many VPNs have additional security features that are beneficial for torrenting. If your VPN app has DNS or IP leak protection or any form of malware blocker, these should be turned on while you are torrenting.

After you turn on your VPN, you are going to want to verify that it is working before you open your favorite BitTorrent client. Some VPN providers offer a tool for verifying a VPN connection. Even if they have no such tool, you can check by going to a site like WhatIsMyIP.com which will show your public IP address. If your VPN is working properly, that site will show the VPN server’s IP instead of yours, and the location and ISP will also correspond to the VPN server instead of your home network.

Let the Torrenting Begin

With your VPN protecting you, you can torrent to your heart’s content. Just remember to always check the status of your VPN before you open your torrenting client. Unless your VPN has malware protection, you’ll also want to consider a malware blocker, just in case you accidentally download a malicious file.

If any public domain movies or other media are in your torrenting plans, now might be a good time to set up a media-center PC to host the content. Nothing screams “I am a cord-cutter” like showing old public-domain episodes of “Flash Gordon” on a modern media server.

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