Thursday, March 13, 2014

When Data Becomes Contraband and People Become Pirates

We are all accustomed to the skull drudgery in the endless war between copyright holders and pirates.  Pirates endlessly shuffle torrents for movies, songs, and books around the globe staying one step ahead of authorities.  While copyright holders engage in the high-tech game of wack-a-mole to stem the tide of piracy.  But there is a new kid on the block - Popcorn Time.

Popcorn Time runs on various operating systems and operates on the P2P BitTorrent protocol.  Another P2P client would not be so interesting except that Popcorn Time streams content.  A couple of key areas that set off my spidey senses.

No copyrighted files stored on viewer computers
Content is streamed from peers, buffered, watched, and discarded after reboot.  In P2P protocols individual users host and share file fragments or blocks of data.  Each peer in the network may not have an entire file and it's often the case.  Blocks are assembled by peers until an entire file is recreated.  Targeting individuals for piracy of copyrighted material is less common but when it occurs authorities focus mostly on those that host or store the copyrighted materials.

Torrent sites unnecessary
Downloading content with traditional Bittorrent clients requires locating a torrent file for the movie or music file of interest.  The torrent file provides the technical information necessary for the P2P client to locate peers and begin downloading.  If Bittorrent has a weakness, it's that it requires participants to locate a torrent file of interest.  As a result, hosting torrent files is risky business.  Law enforcement efforts to date focus on shutting down torrent hosting sites like The Pirate Bay.  Popcorn Time still requires torrents but reduces complexity for users by integration with YIFY and reduces complexity for users.

From the security and privacy professional perspective, Popcorn Time is going to stir some new debate on two fronts.  When does data become illegal:  1 byte, 100 bytes, a block, 100 blocks, a file?  Next, Popcorn Time is easy to use.  No more shady torrent sites, or futzing with Tor clients to conceal identity (if people even care).  Popcorn Time is essentially NetFlix for pirates - it's that easy.  It's likely Popcorn Time will go viral and it when it does it will be interesting to see how industry reacts.

An aside, as I have mentioned in previous articles, I'm not a lawyer but if you are and wish to comment on the post for readers we would welcome your thoughts.  Enjoy!

--Milton




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