A study into the use of immensely popular file-sharing/torrent service BitTorrent has revealed that the majority of its users are being monitored.
UK-based researchers suggest that anyone who uses the service to illegally download copyrighted material (such as newly released films and music) without paying for it are being traced.
A Birmingham University study revealed that the average user who downloads such material is being logged by a monitoring firm within three hours.
This means that if granted court orders, copyright holders could use the data to crack down on illegal downloads and seek compensation.
The BBC reported that the three-year study was carried out by a team of computer scientists who operated in a sting-like fashion, developing software that acted like a BitTorrent file-sharing client and went on to log all the connections made to it.
Services like BitTorrent don't actually host the illegal files. Instead they are stored on their users' computers. Numerous users can download and upload files at the same time.
The team revealed that the logs collected by the service did not appear to rank users by their activity level.
Team leader Dr Tom Chothia was quoted by the BBC as saying: "You don't have to be a mass downloader. Someone who downloads a single movie will be logged as well.
"If the content was in the top 100 it was monitored within hours. Someone will notice and it will be recorded."
The researchers noted that it was the popularity of the files in question, rather than the users that was being tracked. Therefore less popular content was monitored less frequently than, for example, the latest albums in the top 10 charts.
The logging was being performed by copyright enforcement companies, security contractors and other researchers.
Chothia continued: "Many firms are simply sitting on the data. Such monitoring is easy to do and the data is out there so they think they may as well collect it as it may be valuable in future."
It has even been speculated that some of these tracking companies may be selling the data of the users to copyright holders, effectively making them internet bounty hunters of sorts.
Some copyright owners use known IP addresses to urge internet service providers to release personal details of their customers - i.e. their phsyical addresses to issue warnings of court action.
However, this has proved problematic for lawyers as all it really reveals is the source of the internet account rather than the user who could be actually charged of copyright theft.
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