The Feds Brought Down the World’s Biggest File-Sharing Site

It was back up two days later, showing the futility of keeping the illicit web down.

Screen Shot 2016-07-22 at 5crop

Until his arrest this week, Artem Vaulin was a pirating kingpin. The 30-year-old Ukrainian’s website, KickassTorrents, was the world’s most popular illegal file-sharing site. It was the 69th most popular website on the internet and garnered more than 50 million visitors every month. All told, U.S. authorities say movie studios and music companies lost more than $1 billion because of Vaulin’s site.

In a synchronized international sting, police in Poland arrested Vaulin while a federal court in Chicago seized seven internet domains associated with his site, effectively shutting them down. “Cybercriminals can run, but they cannot hide from justice,” Assistant Attorney General Leslie Caldwell said while announcing what she described as a major victory in the fight against piracy. If convicted on all charges, Vaulin faces up to 25 years in prison.

But the celebration was premature. While itself currently displays a prominent federal seizure notice, several mirrors — sites claiming to host backups of the KickassTorrents site — popped up Friday. While the original KickassTorrents has been shuttered, enterprising hackers are trying to make the site’s lucrative brand their own by opening up copycat sites. These sites bear the same name and claim to host many of the same files as the original.

So while the investigation into Vaulin’s piracy empire and his arrest illustrate the lengths to which U.S. prosecutors are going in cracking down on cybercriminals, it also illustrates the whack-a-mole nature of going after digital crime.

Joseph Fitzpatrick, an assistant U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, which brought the case, declined to comment beyond the public filings in the case and on the difficulties of prosecuting cases in which the target of the investigation reappears immediately after an arrest.

The federal government has, in recent years, stepped up its prosecution of online crimes like piracy and child pornography, but several of its most prominent prosecutions have been marked by a certain whack-a-mole quality. When it took down the online drug marketplace Silk Road, for example, copycat sites quickly popped up.

Subsequent prosecutions against the operators of Silk Road 2.0, for example, have followed a similar pattern. Their operators get arrested, their sites shut down, and someone else steps in to take their place.

For an alleged cybercriminal reeling in millions of dollars per year through his illicit business, Vaulin wasn’t very careful. He operated a Facebook fan page for KickassTorrents using an Apple email address, and after getting a warrant, the U.S. government got both Apple and Facebook to turn over his account details. From there, investigators followed a trail of digital cookie crumbs left by Vaulin to connect him to the website’s operation, according to the complaint against him.

Vaulin currently faces extradition proceedings in Poland. He could face up to five years in prison on copyright infringement charges and up to another 20 on money-laundering charges.

For cybercriminals, Vaulin’s arrest is a good reminder of why you should not mix your personal email accounts with your illicit activities. It also shows that Apple — despite its very public dispute with the federal government over encrypted information belonging to the San Bernardino, California, terrorists — routinely turns over user data to prosecutors.

Although KickassTorrents was a highly lucrative enterprise for Vaulin, torrents also form the backbone of the online freedom of information movement. A petition on calling for Vaulin’s release argues that his arrest represents “another attack on freedom and rights of internet users from all around the world.”

Torrents allow users to download large files at high speeds by utilizing peer-to-peer connections. Rather than connecting to one central server and downloading an entire movie or song, the peer-to-peer architecture allows computers to download fragments hosted by other computers in the network, which can be done much more quickly. The system is commonly used to download large files like porn, television shows, and computer software.

This visualization gives a sense of how such a system works. Add a large number of “seeds,” and you’ll get a sense of how data transfers can become very fast in a large network of computers.

Although the file-sharing site The Pirate Bay has become synonymous with the use of torrents to share files, KickassTorrents passed the Swedish site last year to become the world’s most popular torrent site. It has repeatedly switched domains — from Somalia to Costa Rica — in order to evade the authorities.

File-sharing sites such as KickassTorrents and The Pirate Bay are the bête noire of the entertainment industry, which has waged an expensive legal and lobbying campaign against such sites, mostly to no avail.

The amount of copyrighted information on the web remains legion, and new movies and albums are often available immediately upon their release on torrent sites. That ecosystem of file sharing represents a huge financial liability for artists looking to get paid for their work.

Although not all files shared via torrent are protected by copyright, one 2010 study found that 99 percent of files shared via the BitTorrent client violated copyright.

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 Twitter: @EliasGroll