Torrenting is never anonymous, pirate-chasing lawyer claims

Opinion: It's impossible to use torrent software anonymously, according to a lawyer well-known for chasing alleged pirates across the web. Is that so?

When it comes to views on anonymous browsing, Carl Crowell may be considered a few sandwiches short of a picnic -- and yet his business thrives on the ignorance he at least pretends to have.

Based in Oregon, Carl Crowell is a lawyer who specializes in tracking down alleged pirates who use torrent software to obtain intellectually infringing material including music, films and television shows.

Crowell has filed numerous lawsuits against pirates in the United States, and also works on behalf of entities including California studio Voltage Pictures, producers of the film Dallas Buyers Club. The studio is currently in hot pursuit of approximately 5,000 alleged downloaders of the film.

Most often, however, suits filed by the lawyer never reach the judge as downloaders, frightened by threats and legal jargon, pay damages of a few thousand dollars instead and settle out of court.

Yes, downloading copyrighted material is illegal, but Crowell's tactics in tracking down thieves have generated criticism. Whether you agree with the lawyer's honed-in approach of targeting a select few persistently rather than mass mailing, he is generally successful -- and therefore is in high demand by studios protecting their content.

In an interview with local paper Willamette Week, Crowell said:

"The media calls what I do a scam, a fraud. There are stories online that tell people the worst thing you can do is respond, but it's not a problem that's going to go away by being ignored."

The lawyer has won 80 cases for his clients so far, with many pending -- and the typical settlement reached is $7,500. However, Crowell does not indiscriminately hunt down targets; instead, he targets the worst offenders who seed files and keep torrents alive.

"If you just download and don't upload, you don't cross my radar," he says. "I'm interested in persistent involvement over several months."

By targeting the biggest players, the overall piracy system can be weakened. In order to combat intellectual property theft, this seems like a reasonable approach -- we've seen nine-year-olds having their PCs confiscated and parents fined, while teenagers are hit with heavy fines as a matter of ill luck rather than pirate notoriety, but this does nothing to solve the problem as a whole.

However, Crowell then goes on to make a rather interesting statement to the newspaper, saying:

"There is no anonymity online. If you want to pirate content, you have to do so publicly."

Crowell says that he starts with a torrent file which lists the IP addresses of each computer system connected to the torrent. While these are publicly visible, the lawyer has missed a key point -- that IP addresses can be hidden or masked through proxies and virtual private networks (VPNs).

While Crowell says some alleged pirates he's after claim visitors have jumped on their Wi-Fi to pirate content, every case has eventually ended up in a settlement either way -- leaving you to wonder at the effectiveness of this excuse, if the scenario is not indeed fact.

It's interesting to speculate whether Crowell truly doesn't know how proxies and VPNs work -- which is highly unlikely in his field -- or whether the comment was carefully made in order to solidify his reputation as a rottweiler when it comes to claims and keeping the damages coming in. (Think: You aren't anonymous no matter what you believe, and he's coming after you.)

Perhaps it simply is a scare tactic, as the lawyer admits he does not go forward with damage claims unless he's confident he has a strong case in court. If someone is using a VPN, tracking them is more difficult, and the lawyer's reliance on torrent list scrapers to compile IP addresses alone would not bode well for the success of such a case.

Either way, the statement is not exactly true. The Tor network is one of the better standards in terms of disguising your online tracks, while VPNs and proxies are solutions which are easier to set up. It is difficult to become 'truly' anonymous online, but disguising your presence and IP address is another matter entirely.

Happily for Crowell, it seems that many pirates fail to implement the basic steps to protect their privacy, leading legal teams straight to their door.

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