Computer Question What Is a Torrent Site and Are They Dangerous?

In this article I’ll answer a question sent in by a student named Daniel McClutchy who writes: “Hi Worth:  Your CDs have helped a great deal to understand the internet and computer basics. Thanks.

I have a question for you.  Can you explain what a torrent site is? I followed a recommendation of a co-worker and logged on to one. My Kasperksy went crazy, not allowing me to access it.  Is this because they contain viruses?
Thanks, Daniel”

Well Daniel, I’m glad you’ve found my lessons to be a help; I always appreciate it when people take the time to let me know how they’re benefiting from my hard work!

So, let’s start off by explaining what a torrent site is, and then I’ll answer your question about whether they’re dangerous. A “torrent” is short for “BitTorrent” which is a technology used to distribute files over the Internet. Like any technology, it can be used positively or negatively.

Torrents can potentially speed up the downloading of large files (downloading is the process of copying a file “down” to your computer from another one, usually over the Internet — when sending a file it’s called uploading). It speeds up downloads by basically chopping up (so to speak) a file into tiny pieces which can be sent in a “swarm” from dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of computers at once, each only having to send a small amount of the file.

While there are many legitimate uses for this, perhaps the most common use for torrents is to share pirated movies, music and other copyrighted files. Now I’m not going to go into a moral lecture on whether or not it’s right to take other people’s content without paying for it, but I will warn you that there are a lot of risks involved in using the “torrent sites” you’re asking about.

Now as I said, there are many completely legal and legitimate uses for the BitTorrent technology, but when people talk about “torrent sites”, they’re generally referring to the ones using BitTorrent to distribute copyrighted material without paying for it. Those sites you do need to be wary of. Let me explain why.

First off, many of those torrent sites are hosting ads from less legitimate advertising networks which tend to be used by “shady” sites such as gambling and pornography sites. These ads are more likely to contain “malware”, which is software (including, but not limited to viruses and worms) designed to cause damage.

Malware is written these days to make money by infecting computers, and so shady sites often do this as a cheap way to make money, and they apparently don’t care whether they cause harm!

So many torrent sites are capable of infecting a computer simply by you visiting it, especially if you’re not protecting yourself with good Internet security software (such as Kaspersky) and by avoiding using the Internet Explorer web browser. Beyond the potential risk of simply visiting a torrent site, many of the files a person might try to download from those sites are themselves infected with dangerous malware.

It’s well known that Apple’s Mac computers tend to have far fewer threats than Windows computers do, but the biggest threats for Macs that I recall from the last few years have all come from downloading illegal copyrighted material from sites like these. And it’s a far bigger problem for Microsoft Windows computers! One study I’ve heard of says that as much as 47% of all “zero-day malware” (one of the most dangerous kinds) is distributed through BitTorrent.

Lastly, beyond the potential threats to your computer posed by torrent sites and other file trading sites, there’s a very real risk to your wallet. The recording industry, including the film and music industries have been very aggressively pursuing people who do illegal file sharing and are happy to sue you for a lot of money if they catch you. And believe me, they can afford better lawyers than you or I!

Internet Service Providers will often shut down your Internet connection if they detect you’ve been sharing files illegally, so there’s that risk too. So my advice is to steer clear of torrent sites. There are plenty of inexpensive ways to listen to music and watch TV shows and movies online or offline without exposing yourself to the risks of file trading sites such as torrent sites.

I hope that makes sense, and helps.

Until next time, take care, and enjoy,
Worth Godwin
Plain English Simplicity for This Complex Modern World


Update: Please note that this was originally posted several years ago and while I do still offer computer training courses, they are all accessed online these days directly through this website instead of on CD-ROMs the way they were originally.