You'd probably be forgiven if you took new research from Carnegie Mellon University with a dose of scepticism. Anti-piracy groups have tried to push this idea in the past, regardless of the evidence, with some even going so far as to claim dodgy streaming boxes can infect your systems with viruses and other nasty software. So when research claims that people perusing pirate sites have higher risk of malware infection, it might be tempting to scoff and dismiss it.
But that's what the new findings do say, offering some insight into the relationship between sites that offer piracy-based services and the spread of malware. For a year Professor Rahul Telang analysed the browsing behaviour of 253 participants, and found that the more time people spent on pirate sites the more likely they were to download some sort of malware onto their machines. Specifically doubling the amount of time you spend on said sites increases the likelihood by 20 per cent.
This result only applied to piracy sites, and not other categories included in the research (banking, gambling, gaming, shopping, social networking, and adult). It functioned by scanning all the files downloaded to the participants' computers and comparing the results to reports from Virustotal.com. Interestingly those reports did include adware, though the final results did separate it from more serious malware. The research notes that classifying adware is problematic, especially since the goal involves delivering ads rather than anything really dangerous. Results were also separated to alleviate fears that the high rates of potential malware exposure were the result of dodgy advertising.
While the 20 per cent figure seems high, TorrentFreak notes that the raw numbers paint a very different picture. According to the results the average amount of malware downloaded by the participants was 0.25, with an added 0.05 if the participant doubled the amount of time spent on pirate sites. That basically means the majority of people come into contact with no malware at all. The total sample also shows that the average number of malware files pirate site users were exposed to was 1.5, compared to 1.4 for those who didn't visit them at all.
While it seems to paint a poor picture of pirate sites, the results only highlight the link between the two. It doesn't mean piracy is the leading cause of malware infection, as has been claimed in the past, nor does it guarantee that pirating content is going to infect your computer. It does mean there's a large risk compared to other types of websites, but that's probably to be expected when the purpose of a site is to download files you wouldn't be able to get elsewhere. Somewhere amongst them is bound to be something that claims to be something it's not.
Plus it's not going to stop people, even the 40 per cent of users the research claimed visited pirate sites without any form of anti-virus software to protect them. [Torrent Freak]