What Is BitTorrent, Anyway?
BitTorrent has an unsavory reputation, one that is both unfair and yet also well deserved. At its best, BitTorrent addresses the bottleneck created when too many people try to download the same files from a single source at once—be they bootlegged tv shows, hot music tracks, DRM-free books, or photos of cats. BitTorrent turns a file’s popularity into a benefit, instead of a bottleneck, by having each of the downloaders distribute pieces of the file to every other downloader.
Furthermore, it’s decentralized, with no main server to choke under the burden of traffic. There’s no disputing that torrenting is a clever idea. While it can be used for legitimate purposes, its decentralized nature also makes it perfect for illegally sharing copyrighted content online, too.
BitTorrent’s dubious distinction as the pirate’s tool of choice has led to indiscriminate crackdowns from ISPs on the use of BitTorrent. With a virtual private network or VPN, your traffic is encrypted and secured to ensure that no one can see what you’re up to—even when you’re torrenting. The catch is, not every VPN service allows BitTorrent on its servers.
What Is a VPN?
When you surf the web, your internet traffic isn’t necessarily secure. Someone could be lurking on the same network as you, monitoring your activities. That’s especially true when you’re using a public Wi-Fi network. Clever attackers can even create bogus Wi-Fi networks that impersonate legit ones, tricking you into connecting and exposing your personal information.
Your ISP also has remarkable insight into what you do online and has even been given the green light to sell anonymized user metadata. Thanks, Congress! But with a VPN, they won’t be able to see what you’re up to. That will come in handy when we get back to talking about torrenting.
VPNs work by routing your web traffic through an encrypted tunnel between your computer and a server operated by the VPN company. Anyone snooping on your activities, even if they are the ones running the network, won’t be able to see what you’re up to. Even the ISPs will be blind. Advertisers and others on the web will have a harder time tracking your movements because your true IP address is hidden behind that of the VPN server and your traffic is mixed in with everyone else on that server.
Using a VPN goes a long way to improving your personal security, but it’s not a bulletproof, magical solution. When it comes to security, we often say that it’s better to think of tools like VPNs as raising the effort required to successfully attack you. If someone is willing to invest the time and money in targeting you specifically, they will eventually get what they’re after. A VPN needs to be part of a layered approach to security and can’t take the place of critical tools, such as good antivirus software.
Everything Is Free Now
We often receive emails asking about the interplay between VPNs and BitTorrent. Some of them have included admissions of piracy and even justifications for it. One reader bemoaned the difficulty in finding legal avenues for material that is out of print or just hard to obtain or not available for sale in a given locale. We sympathize. The state of the public domain has been woefully neglected, and market forces and regional distribution deals often keep-worthy art and materials out of the hands of those who want it, even if they are willing to pay for it. But no matter how just the reasoning, the law (however problematic) is the law. ISPs and, yes, other web companies, are often compelled to answer when rights holders come with a list of offenses carried out on their data infrastructure.
If you are going to use BitTorrent for whatever reason, good luck to you. If you are going to use a VPN, more power to you. But be sure that you take the time to read the VPN’s terms of service before you start. And be aware of the local laws and possible penalties before you start, whatever your willingness to obey them. “I didn’t know the law,” or “I don’t agree with the law,” won’t hold up as defenses in a court, so make sure you can live with any potential punishments should you choose to do something legally dubious.
Will a VPN Hide My Torrenting From My ISP or the Police?
The short answer is that, yes, a VPN can shield your online activities from your ISP. And that’s a good thing, not only if you have legally iffy torrenting habits, but also because it protects your privacy in general. An online survey of 1,000 conducted by PCMag found that 25 percent of respondents named ISPs as the biggest threat to their online privacy. That’s entirely correct.
As we said, however: no security tool is bulletproof. On paper, a VPN should prevent your ISP from seeing your traffic as it flows across the web. It should also make it much, much harder for someone on the outside to identify particular traffic as yours.
That said, there are always exceptions. Time and time again, user error and efforts by law enforcement have undermined the protection offered by services like Tor or VPNs. Timing attacks, for example, can correlate packet traffic at a VPN server with activity on your own network.
In some cases, the problem may be the VPN itself. If the VPN company keeps copious logs about user activity (specifically, the identity of the user, which server they connected to, when) that information could potentially be obtained by law enforcement.
Can I Use BitTorrent on My VPN?
Most VPN services are completely fine with you using BitTorrent or P2P services while using their products. All of our top-rated VPN services do not prohibit file sharing.
Even the services that do allow torrenting often have restrictions. Some, for example, may require that you only use BitTorrent when connected to specific VPN servers. NordVPN labels the servers where torrenting is acceptable. TorGuard VPN, on the other hand, does not make any distinction about user traffic, so you can torrent to your heart’s content. Note that pretty much every VPN service that allows torrenting also explicitly forbids breaking copyright law, or otherwise abusing the service.
Some VPNs have tools that are particularly useful for torrenting. NordVPN is one of several companies that offer static IP addresses for purchase, which can desirable in some circumstances. TorGuard VPN has built its entire reputation around protecting torrenters. In addition to the usual VPN protection, TorGuard also offers static IP addresses and access to special high-bandwidth connections, for an additional fee.
What About Speeds?
When you use a VPN, your web traffic is usually traveling through more fiber and more machines. The practical upshot is that your connection speeds are affected by all that extra distance. For large torrents, this can mean a longer wait before you get the completed file.
A quick note about VPN testing: networks are finicky things, and we don’t claim our work to be the be-all and end-all of VPN speed testing. Instead, this is a snapshot of how a particular service performed on a specific day. We also don’t think that speeds should be the only metric used to evaluate a VPN, but it’s clearly of concern to BitTorrent users.
In my latest round of testing, I compared speed test results with and without a VPN running. I used the Ookla speed test tool, and present the results below. Note that these are in order of score, with the top score in each category marked with italicized red text.
Right now, we consider HideIPVPN the fastest VPN among those we’ve tested. That said, speed shouldn’t be the primary consideration when purchasing a VPN—even if you’re planning on using your VPN exclusively for Torrenting.
VPN Reliability and Accessibility Issues
The extra stops and processes for your data and the distance introduced by VPNs can make a normal browsing experience somewhat hiccup-y. Suddenly losing connectivity while the VPN resets is mildly annoying in day-to-day life, but we could see how such interruptions could really slow down a large BitTorrent download.
If you plan on using a VPN while torrenting, consider the ramifications of the Kill Switch. This feature, found in most VPN services, prevents apps from sending data via the internet when the VPN is disconnected. The idea is that it prevents any information from being transmitted in the clear. The avid BitTorrent downloader needs to decide if they want total and complete protection, or would rather not have their download interrupted.
Location, Location, Location
While VPN services have servers all over the world, each company’s headquarters do have to be based somewhere on the planet. And that somewhere might have data retention laws that require the VPN company to either collect and maintain user data for a set period of time.
Understanding what kind of information a VPN service collects, and how long it is maintained, can be hard to figure out. To get the answer, you may have to wade through unending FAQ pages and opaque terms of service written in arcane legalese. If the VPN company you’re considering can’t clearly explain what information it gathers and how long it will be kept, it’s probably not a great service.
When we review VPNs, we make a point to ask service representatives about what efforts they take to secure customers’ privacy. You can read through our full reviews to see their answers. So far, the majority of services have shown that they take protecting user privacy very seriously.
Note that national and international law as it relates to data storage and whether that data can be turned over to law enforcement is complicated and constantly changing. A good service today might choose or be compelled to alter its policies tomorrow, so pay attention to any updates to the terms of service.
Encrypt Your Torrent Traffic
Perhaps you’ll decide that all this effort isn’t worth it just to secure your BitTorrent downloads. But even so, you should keep in mind that a VPN is still the best way to keep your internet traffic private and secure. Whether you decide to spring for a premium account, you’re looking for a cheap VPN, or you want to dip your toe in with a free VPN, it’s about time you started living the encrypted lifestyle.
Best VPNs for BitTorrent Featured in This Roundup:
Pros: More than 5,200 servers in diverse locations worldwide. Unique, specialized servers. Six simultaneous connections. P2P allowed. Browser apps. Blocks ads, other web threats. Strong customer privacy stance.
Cons: Expensive. Cannot purchase additional simultaneous connections.
Bottom Line: NordVPN wraps a slick client around a strong collection of features for securing your online activities and an enormous network of servers. Earning a rare 5-star rating, it’s our top pick for VPNs.
Pros: Affordable. Excellent app interface. Far above the average number of available servers. Ad blocking. Supports P2P file sharing and BitTorrent. Multiplatform support. Strong stance on customer privacy.
Cons: No free version. No specialized servers.
Bottom Line: Private Internet Access offers a robust VPN service at an unbeatable price, and with an excellent new app interface. In terms of value, it cannot be beaten.
Pros: Affordable. Excellent privacy policies. Annual independent audits. Friendly, approachable design. Browser extensions, including stand-alone ad blocker. Good speed test results.
Cons: Lack of geographic diversity in server locations.
Bottom Line: If you’re tired of edgy security products, let the strong-but-cute bears of TunnelBear VPN defend your web traffic. Easy to use and easily affordable, it’s an Editors’ Choice winner.
Bottom Line: CyberGhost offers an excellent VPN product with strong, unique features not found elsewhere, along with a generous number of simultaneous connections. It’s expensive, however.
Pros: 10 simultaneous connections. A good geographic diversity of servers. Allows BitTorrenting. Automatic IP address cycling.
Cons: Unwelcoming interface. Limited global server presence.
Bottom Line: VPN service IPVanish secures your web traffic from prying eyes. It packs powerful features veteran VPN users will appreciate and presents a good value overall, although its interface may intimidate the less experienced.
Pros: Affordable. Numerous servers spread across the globe. Lets you easily add simultaneous connections. Many add-ons. Good speed test scores.
Cons: Clunky client. No free subscription.
Bottom Line: TorGuard VPN is the best bet for BitTorrent seeders and leechers looking to secure their web traffic. It’s packed with features sure to appeal to security wonks, though its client is clunky.
Cons: Expensive. Few simultaneous connections allowed.
Bottom Line: ExpressVPN is a comprehensive VPN service with an impressive server fleet and excellent features. But, compared with the competition, it allows for fewer simultaneous connections, and it’s more expensive.
Pros: Best speed test scores. Simple interface. Allows P2P, BitTorrent activity on specific servers. Supports legacy and niche protocols.
Cons: Tiny number of servers in just 11 countries. Offers fewer licenses than the competition. Confusing pricing structure.
Bottom Line: HideIP VPN is the fastest VPN yet in our testing, but it has a tiny number of servers and offers fewer licenses than the competition.
Pros: Excellent free version. Flexible, low-cost plans. Focus on physical security. Excellent privacy policies. Slick, accessible client. Multi-hop VPN to secure locations and Tor connections. P2P friendly. ProtonMail bundle is available.
Cons: Few servers and locations. Difficult to find the fastest servers. Full access to servers and features only at the highest pay level.
Bottom Line: ProtonVPN doesn’t have as many servers as much of the competition, but its focus on exacting security at an affordable price tag makes it a compelling choice. Plus, its free version is the best we’ve tested so far.
Cons: Comparably few servers. No specialized servers. Unintuitive design. Some protocols limited to higher tiers.
This is just a glimpse into some of the VPN’s that are out there that you can try for torrents. As always, read your reviews and go with the one that fits your budget and your needs.
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