As a fourth wave of stolen celebrity nude photos and videos is being distributed on the Internet, lawyers for some of the affected celebrities are suing Google for making it too easy to find their stolen images. However, the more savvy voyeurs are not using Google to search for the latest leaks, they are simply waiting for them to be delivered to their hard disk using BitTorrent Sync.
Years ago, I used to run the juggling workshops at the San Francisco Circus Center. There was this goth kid who used to turn up. He was a bit lacking in social skills. When he wasn’t juggling he would stand too close to you and talk about things you weren’t really interested in. Of course, in a room full of jugglers, someone lacking in social skills was not really exceptional. One of his regular topics was how his way of doing something (club swinging, knot throwing, programming…) was different and better than everyone else’s. This got old, so when he told me he was writing a file transfer protocol that was different and better than everyone else’s, my reaction was, “Bram, we already have FTP and that works fine.”
OK, I called that one wrong. A few years later Bram Cohen was on Time’s list of the hundred most influential people, and his BitTorrent protocol was responsible for a third of all Internet traffic. His social skills had improved a lot as well. More recently he has added BitTorrent Live and BitTorrent Sync to the product line. BitTorrent Live allows live streaming to mobile devices, and BitTorrent Sync allows cloud like sharing of files across multiple machines – but both operate on a peer to peer basis so there is no need for central servers with huge bandwidth or data storage.
It seems that one of the first applications of any new communications technology is always pornography. The first photographs were taken in the late 1830s and the oldest surviving pornographic photograph is from 1846. By 1852, 40% of the photographs registered for sale in Paris featured nudity. In the case of BitTorrent, Bram needed to test his new application in the wild with files that a large number of users would want to download, to see how it would behave under load. He deliberately found some pornographic videos that were in the public domain and distributed them using BitTorrent.
Bram went on the promote BitTorrent within the Linux community. When a new version of one of the popular distributions was released, there was always great demand, and FTP servers offering the files would be overloaded or saddled with a huge bandwidth bill. Because of the peer to peer nature of BitTorrent, the more people wanting to download the file, the faster the downloads were for everyone. This legitimate and legal use of BitTorrent means that even though it is also often used to pirate copyright material, Bram and the BitTorrent corporation have not faced any legal action for assisting copyright violations.
While BitTorrent allows the distribution of a file or group of files, once this distribution has been started those files cannot be modified. BitTorrent Sync is different. It allows you to share the contents of a directory across multiple machines, and as the contents of that directory are modified, so the changes are propagated across all the machines. The original owner of the files can grant access (which may be read only or read/write) to any other machine on the Internet by sharing a random key. Traffic between the machines is encrypted.
There are currently at least two shared directories providing continuously updated versions of the stolen celebrity photos. Each has separate subdirectories for each celebrity, and adds new photos and videos as they are leaked. One deliberately omits the photos reported to be taken when the subjects were under the age of 18 while the other includes them, but allows blocking on a subdirectory basis, so the users can avoid having potentially illegal material on their hard disk.
Though BitTorrent Sync in this case is facilitating the distribution of stolen photographs, it could also prevent this happening again. It allows sharing and backup across different devices (including PCs, Macs, Linux servers, phones, and tablets) without the need for a central server which can be compromised. The keys used to control access are not subject to brute force attacks in the way that passwords. In other words, it provides an alternative to cloud storage which is by default more secure and private than any current popular cloud solution.