Learning how to download files safely requires a combination of the right software and techniques. Without taking precautions, you run the risk of legal trouble. This guide covers the tools and methods for learning how to use torrents safely.
Table of Contents
- Software Requirements
- How to Install and Set Up a VPN
- Torrent Client Setup
- How to Set Up a Browser Proxy Add-on
- Test Your BitTorrent and VPN Setup for Leaks
- How to Open Torrent Files (With a Client)
- Torrent-Related Questions
- Three Rules for Using Torrents Safely
Safe torrent client use requires a combination of software and procedures. We recommend the following software:
- Torrent client: QBittorrent (available on Windows, Linux, and macOS)
- VPN Client: we recommend ExpressVPN although two cheaper options are Windscribe VPN or Private Internet Access (PIA). I use PIA, but keep in mind it was recently acquired by Kape Technologies.
- VPN Proxy: a proxy lets you route BitTorrent traffic through a proxy server, which disguises where your traffic comes from. There are free proxies out there, but many VPN providers bundle a proxy with a VPN subscription.
- A browser. We recommend using Firefox, but Chrome works as well.
- A browser extension (our list of the best privacy protecting add-ons for Firefox and Chrome) that protects against malicious advertising.
- A laptop or desktop computer. While you can use torrents on smartphones and tablets, we don’t advise it.
- Private Internet Access VPN Client Download Page
- QBitTorrent Torrent Client Download Page
- Private Internet Access Proxy Browser Plugin | Firefox | Chrome
- FoxyProxy Extension (or Add-on) | Firefox | Chrome
How to Install and Set Up a VPN
Before starting, get a VPN subscription.
A VPN protects your identity by hiding what you’re torrenting from snoops, such as Internet Service Providers (ISPs). While BitTorrent technology is legal in almost all countries, there is a chance that you might accidentally download a copyrighted media file. While you should never violate your local laws, mistakes happen.
Step One: Subscribe to a VPN Provider
A VPN client is a software that allows you to connect to the VPN’s network of servers. After installing and running a client, everything you do online is routed through the VPN’s network, which obscures your location and activity from prying eyes. In other words, they provide privacy.
- Sign up for the VPN service.
- Log into the VPN provider.
- Record your account name and password. You’ll need to use these credentials twice: first, to log into your VPN client and second to log into the browser plugin that operates the proxy.
Step Two: Download and Install the VPN Client
- Download the VPN client. In my case it’s PIA.
- Run the executable file that you just downloaded to install it.
- Restart your computer after the installation process finishes.
Step Three: Input Your Account Name and Password
- After you launch the VPN client, input your account name (called a “login”) and password.
- Click the LOG IN button. You’ll then automatically connect to the VPN’s servers.
Torrent Client Set Up
Step One: Download and Install the Torrent Client
- Download QBitTorrent.
- Install QBittorrent by double-clicking on the downloaded executable file.
- Launch QBittorrent
Step Two: Configure the Torrent Client (Safely)
- Launch QBittorrent
- Go to Tools > Options
- Inside of the QBittorrent interface, select Connection from the left pane.
- Under Proxy Server
- Choose SOCKS5 for Type and enter 1080 for the Port.
- If you use PIA as your VPN, for Host enter: proxy-nl.privateinternetaccess.com
- Check the box for Authentication and enter your Username and Password (you should have received this after you signed up for a VPN).
- Close and restart QBittorrent
Your torrent client should now use a proxy server. If you’ve also installed (and run) a VPN client, your torrent internet activity should now be routed once through the proxy server and once through a VPN network.
How to Set Up a Browser Proxy Add-on
For this tutorial we’re using the FoxyProxy Add-on for Firefox instead of PIA’s official proxy add-on. FoxyProxy includes a free (we don’t suggest using free proxy add-ons except for demonstrative purposes) proxy, but you will want to use a VPN provider’s proxy server.
Step One: Install FoxyProxy
- If you don’t have the Firefox browser, install it. (FoxyProxy is also available for the Chrome Browser, but we don’t recommend Chrome.)
- Start Firefox.
- Download and install FoxyProxy.
Step Two: Configure a Proxy in FoxyProxy
- In Firefox, right-click on the FoxyProxy icon in the upper-right corner.
- From the context menu, choose Manage Extension.
- From the FoxyProxy configuration menu, choose Add from the left-pane.
- For Proxy Type choose SOCKS5.
- For Proxy IP Address or DNS name type in your VPN’s proxy server address. For PIA, it’s proxy-nl.privateinternetaccess.com.
- For Port type in 1080.
- Enter your VPN Username and Password.
- Left-click on Save in the lower-right side of the screen.
Your browser should now route its traffic through a proxy server, in addition to routing traffic through a VPN. This scheme provides redundancy in the event of a VPN failure.
Test Your BitTorrent and VPN Setup for Leaks
Before heading over to a torrent site and downloading, let’s test your torrent client, QBittorrent, and VPN for problems. A leak can reveal your physical location and identity, so this is an extremely important step.
Step One: Note Your IP Address
- Turn off your VPN
- In a browser, navigate to TorrentPrivacy.com.
- Note Browsing IP address in the lower-left corner.
Step Two: Check Your VPN’s IP Address
- Turn on your VPN.
- Close and reopen your browser.
- Return to TorrentPrivacy.com and note the Browsing IP address in the lower-left corner.
If the two addresses match, your VPN client is not functioning properly. You’ll need to redo your VPN configuration and make sure it indicates that functioning VPN connection. For PIA, the client displays a green power-status icon when connected and a yellow power-status icon when not connected, as displayed below:
If they do not match, your VPN is working.
Step Three: Test Your Torrent Client for Safety
The final step is to check your torrent client for leaks. The process is easy.
- On TorrentSafety.com, click on the Download test torrent file link and open the downloaded file with QBittorrent
- With a minute, the TorrentSafety site should display the IP address of the proxy server used by your torrent client. PIA’s proxy server is located in the Netherlands.
If the Torrent IP address matches your Browsing IP address, your torrent client is incorrectly configured. You are still protected by the VPN, but you will not have a fallback protection scheme in the event of a VPN failure.
If the Torrent IP doesn’t match your Browsing IP from Step One, your torrent client is correctly configured. Now all your torrent traffic is routed through two servers for additional security and privacy.
How to Open Torrent Files (With a Client)
Opening torrent files is easy.
- Go to a site that hosts torrent or magnet links (our list of the best torrent sites around).
- Search for a file you’re interested in. In my case, it’s “Night of the Living Dead”, which is a Creative Commons media file, freely available for download and upload in all countries.
- From the list of files that appear, click on one.
- You can choose between .torrent and magnet files. I recommend choosing a magnet file. Magnet files are downloaded from seeders, peers, and leechers, whereas .torrent files come from websites.
- Double-click on the downloaded file. Your torrent client should automatically open and begin downloading the file.
- If the download doesn’t start, try closing and reopening the torrent client.
What Is a Torrent Client or Torrent File?
A torrent client, such as QBittorrent, is an installable software that coordinates the download of any file, including videos and music, with one or more computers that host a copy of the desired file.
A torrent file contains information on the file that you want to download. To start downloading a desired file, you must first open the .torrent file with the torrent client, like QBittorrent. By installing QBittorrent, you automatically associated the torrent client with torrent files. Just by double-clicking on the torrent file, you automatically open it with the client.
A torrent file has the file extension .torrent. It looks like this in the Windows operating system:
However, in order for torrent clients to communicate with other computers, it needs to share information related to that computer’s location, or IP address. And it’s through the IP address that many torrent users are identified.
Where Do You Find Torrent Files?
Sites like ThePirateBay.org host torrent files, not the file you’re looking for. Without the torrent file, you can’t download what you want. Therefore, hosting sites are necessary parts of the torrent file-distribution system.
In other words, you get the torrent file from the torrent site. You then open the torrent file with a torrent client. It’s the torrent client that handles the hard work of determining how best to distribute, upload, and download the file.
Here’s our list of the best torrent sites on the internet.
What Is a Public or Private Tracker?
You have two kinds of choices when choosing a torrent source: public or private “trackers”. A tracker website, like the Pirate Bay, keeps a list of files that are distributed throughout the BitTorrent network.
Public trackers are available to literally everyone on the internet who lives in a country that’s not blocking the torrent site. They come with the risk that the torrents being offered are honeypots, or tricks to get you to download an illegal file, which opens you up to legal extortion tactics and lawsuits.
A private tracker site is usually available through invitation. Oftentimes private sites have something called “ratios”. A ratio requires that the user upload as much content as they download. Users with low ratios (referred to as “leechers”) often have their accounts deleted. Private tracker sites have higher quality and download speeds, as well as superior security, compared to public trackers.
We recommend using private trackers, although if you take the necessary precautions, such as using a VPN and configuring a BitTorrent proxy, you are mostly (but not fully) protected on public trackers.
What Is a Seeder, Peer, or Leecher?
Seeders, peers, and leechers are terms you’ll see in a BitTorrent client.
- A seeder has a complete copy of the file on their computer and makes it available for download.
- A peer either has no file or an incompletely downloaded file and allows others to download whatever fragments they have on their computer.
- A leecher is like a peer in that they don’t have a copy of the file, but they also don’t contribute any uploaded files. In other words, leechers are scumbags.
A torrent’s health depends on having a high number of seeders to peers. The speed of a download increases the more seeders there are. Public trackers always have higher amount of peers and therefore slower download speeds.
What Is a SOCKS5 Proxy Server?
A SOCKS5 proxy server uses the latest SOCKS internet protocol for transferring data between your computer and the VPN provider’s SOCKS server. In other words, a SOCKS layer can help prevent an intermediary, such as your ISP, from viewing the content of what you’re doing on the internet.
The method we recommend uses a SOCKS5 proxy on both the browser and on the torrent client as a fallback in case the VPN fails. Because the SOCKS protocol works on a per-application basis, it’s ideal for offering a second layer of protection against online snoops. While proxy servers don’t encrypt your data, they do change IP addresses. That means third parties can see what you’re torrenting, although that activity is associated with the proxy server’s IP address. In other words, you should always use a VPN when using a proxy.
Three Rules for Using Torrents Safely
Now that you’ve hardened your browser and torrent client against snoops, you can torrent with security and privacy. For those who couldn’t be troubled to read the entire article, if you remember anything from this guide, remember these three rules:
- Torrent websites are usually loaded with advertisements, some ads are little more than malware.
- Never install anything you download from a torrent site.
- Never use a torrent site without a VPN.
- You need a fallback in case the VPN fails.