Is uTorrent Really Safe? How to Protect Yourself

By Conner Sinclair | Home Media

Last Updated on

Viruses, malware, and Trojans…oh my! Look, I like using Bit Torrent apps to download free (and legal) content as much as the next guy, but it cannot be denied that some clients are inherently dangerous to use. uTorrent is certainly no exception, and despite its plethora of fantastic features, there are a lot of dangerous risks and threats associated with the client.

In fact, most antivirus and antimalware applications will raise a giant red flag when they sense uTorrent’s presence. In fact, many of them will tag it as “harmful.” Furthermore, Google Chrome has started issuing dire warnings against uTorrent. Dependent upon how your browser is configured, in some cases it will even block the download of uTorrent, claiming that the software is malicious.

If that weren’t troublesome enough, Chrome will even block access to top torrent sites, with a warning that reads, “The site ahead contains harmful programs.” In part, Google has made these changes as part of their Safe Browsing initiative, and have decided to block potentially harmful applications that can make unexpected configuration changes.

So what’s the deal? Is uTorrent really such a bad program? Will running it infect your computer with malware? The short answer is “no,” but know that uTorrent does admittedly carry some nasty risks if you don’t know what you are doing. uTorrent is legitimate software, and it’s actually a massive revenue generator for Bit Torrent Inc.

But contrary to the old saying, what you don’t know can hurt you. So, let’s start off with outlining some of the main threats associated with uTorrent before showing you ways to protect yourself and mitigate said risks.

Malware Risks of uTorrent and Bit Torrent

Unless you’ve been living under a rock or just discovered the wide world of torrents, you probably already know that torrent files are an extremely popular medium among hackers to distribute viruses and malware. Despite torrent sites’ best efforts to give their users peer warnings via comments, it’s still not advisable to blindly trust and open a freshly downloaded file.

While some mischievous torrent files will instantly crash your computer the second you open them and wreak havoc by destroying critical system files, others aren’t so obvious and obnoxious. Instead, some will quietly and invisibly install background processes, rootkits, keyloggers, Trojans, and other types of malware, quietly as a mouse.

“The quiet viruses are infinitely more dangerous than ones that immediately crash your computer, because they could be sending every keystroke back to an attacker.”

The solution to these types of threats is pretty well-known, but for laziness or some other reason, many people fail to protect themselves.

The best way to mitigate these threats is with antivirus software. As a general rule of thumb, you should always scan a Bit Torrent file with antivirus software before opening it. And if the antivirus software so much as classifies it as a low-risk threat, delete that puppy and look elsewhere for the file you want.

Nevertheless, these threats are common amongst all Bit Torrent clients. uTorrent itself doesn’t contain any malware, though it might raise a few flags due to advertising. But all you need to stop that annoyance dead in its tracks is ad-blocking software.

Privacy Risks of uTorrent and Bit Torrent

Viruses and malware are certainly a massive risk incurred every time you download a file with uTorrent, but there are other dangers as well. Before we delve deeper, I’d like to draw an analogy between IP addresses and other personal information. For example, I doubt anyone in their right mind would willingly forfeit their credit card number, social security number, full name, or address to complete strangers.

It’s just a bad idea, because you never know who might try to maliciously use that information against you. The problem, however, is that the average user doesn’t understand how IP addresses work, or even when other entities can see their IP address. If you’ve ever looked at the list of seeders and leechers in the uTorrent interface while downloading a file, you’ll see a table containing an IP address for every peer that your connected to (be it for the purposes of uploading or downloading).

If you don’t take the right precautions, everyone other seeder and leecher will be able to see your IP address as well. And this is a massive threat to your privacy. IP addresses tell computers where to send data, much in the same manner as street addresses tell the public mail system where to send a letter. If a hacker sees your true IP address, they can use that information to launch a variety of attacks against your computer.

With the right hacking software (such as Metasploit, password crackers, Trojans, malicious payloads, etc.), the hacker could plant malicious code on your computer, network, or networking devices. It’s likely your public IP address points to a wireless home router that typically has firewall capabilities. But let me offer just one example of how this could used against.

Possible Attack Scenario

If your public IP address, which is leased from your ISP, sits on the public WAN interface on your wireless router, the hacker might be able to reach the login prompt. And how many home users bother with setting up new login credentials when they’re setting up a home network? Believe it or not, there are tons of ignorant (yet not stupid) home users that just don’t know how to setup a strong username and password.

This gives hackers the opportunity to try using the default OEM username and password. A quick Google search will show the default login credentials for almost all makes and models of wireless routers. After logging into your router, they could easily change the DHCP settings to change the default DNS servers to a host of their choosing.

In turn, an attacker could edit the DNS tables to funnel all of your network traffic through one of their servers. And folks, let met tell you, this is unbelievably dangerous. In no time flat, an attacker could capture or copy all of the data you send, which could include social media usernames and passwords, online banking credentials, web browsing activity, personal photos, and much, much more. Fortunately, there are two main techniques you can employ to hide your real IP address from other seeders and leechers.

The Solution

The first tool you can use is called a VPN tunnel. VPN tunnels have a feature called IP address masking, which hides your true IP address. Basically, the VPN server will make download requests on your behalf, and send you the data after it has been received by the VPN server. But there are two caveats. First of all, you’ll want to ensure that you use a VPN provider that doesn’t keep any logs. And secondly, you’ll have to verify that your VPN service of choice allows Bit Torrent traffic through their servers. Some providers don’t allow Bit Torrent traffic for legal reasons.

In addition, I highly recommend using the Tor network in conjunction with a VPN tunnel. Tor is an anonymity network, and helps make it nigh on impossible for outside entities to find where a traffic source originated from. You see, Tor consists of a network of relay servers, which function by bouncing your data around from one server to the next to obfuscate the source of your traffic. Seeders and leechers would only be able to trace your IP address back to the Tor exit node.

In summary, to protect your anonymity and privacy by hiding your IP address from seeders and leechers, you really need to use Tor combined with a VPN tunnel.

VPN Kill-Switches

uTorrent has many great features, but it lacks a VPN kill-switch. What’s a kill-switch, you ask? It’s simply a software tool that halts downloads in the event of a VPN disconnect – which does happen from time to time. If you continued to download torrents after your VPN tunnel collapsed, your true IP address would be exposed.

Not only would hackers be able to see your real IP address, but ISPs would also be able to see that you were downloading P2P traffic, which might be illegal, depending on where you live. I find it odd that uTorrent doesn’t include a kill-switch feature when other torrent clients do, but hey, no software is ever perfect.

Final Thoughts

So, what’s the verdict? Is uTorrent dangerous? You bet it is, but not for the reasons you may have thought.

“The software itself isn’t dangerous, despite warnings you might see from antivirus software or your web browser.”

Instead, the two largest threats are viruses and malware contained in the file you’re downloading and the fact that uTorrent displays the IP addresses of seeders and leechers in a convenient little tab. The key takeaways are to always scan files with antivirus software before opening them and to use a VPN kill-switch. Lastly, to protect your privacy and anonymity, use a VPN tunnel in combination with the Tor network.

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About the Author

Conner is a self-professed tech nerd, obsessed with digital security and privacy. He loves debugging "lost causes" and thwarting hackers. When not in his depressing cubicle in Corporate America, he's blogging here.