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updated 9/4/2012 5:20:50 PM ET 2012-09-04T21:20:50

If you often download pirated music, movies or software, authorities are likely to have logged your IP address, a new study suggests.

Researchers from several universities presented their findings at the annual SecureComm conference, taking place this week in Padua, Italy, where they revealed "massive monitoring" of BitTorrent listing sites such as the PirateBay.

BitTorrent is a decentralized, peer-to-peer method of distributing files. The data is hosted by multiple "seeders" connected to a central BitTorrent tracker. Those who download the file, known as "leechers," pull tiny pieces of the desired file from the various sources, which is slowly reassembled on the destination computers.

Even before a download is complete, leechers become seeders themselves. Both seeders and leechers are part of a file's "swarm."

Thanks to the enormous size of some of the files being transmitted, BitTorrent traffic currently accounts for more than 11 percent of all Internet traffic in the U.S. and over 20 percent in Europe. At any given time, BitTorrent traffic takes up more bandwidth than YouTube.

While BitTorrent is often used for perfectly legal file transfers, it's undeniably the most widely used protocol for illegally sharing copyrighted content.

According to the report from the University of Birmingham's School of Computer Science, "peers sharing popular content are likely to be monitored within three hours of joining a swarm."

That means once someone is seeding or leeching an especially popular torrent — for example, a copy of the latest big-budget science-fiction movie — it won't take long for that seed to come to the attention of a monitor.

The research team said it found direct monitors lurking mostly on "Top 100" torrents, so if you weren't downloading Linkin Park's "Living Things" or "Men in Black 3," they may not have nabbed your details. The less popular a file is, the less likely it's being monitored.

Popularity also had an impact on logging times. Users downloading hot files are the quickest to be logged.

In addition to revealing that close to 900 users are functioning as direct monitors on the PirateBay, the researchers created a searchable tool that gives anyone access to the PirateBay's top "publishers" along with their details, including IP addresses.

The data gathered, the researchers promise, is for research purposes only, but the study highlights the fact that it's still unclear how law enforcement or record companies gather evidence to enforce copyright laws online.

Recent court filings "imply that at least one copyright-enforcement agency is using some form of direct monitoring to collect its evidence against file-sharers; however, at this time it is not clear whether comprehensive direct monitoring is in widespread use," the researchers said.

While this news is probably scary for some, copyright infringers might find comfort in the study's note that this method of evidence gathering "in its current form ... falls short of providing conclusive evidence of copyright infringement."

There's another reason BitTorrent users may want to pause. The Associated Press reported today (Sept. 4) that PirateBay co-founder Gottfrid Svartholm Warg was arrested in Cambodia last week at the behest of the Swedish government. If extradited, Warg could face a one-year prison term for violations of copyright law.

© 2012 SecurityNewsDaily. All rights reserved

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