Fans of HBO shows such as "Game of Thrones" could soon be faced with a legal, ethical, and practical dilemma: whether to watch unaired episodes that may have been stolen from HBO and could be leaked online.

Here’s the background. Last week, HBO was the victim of a cyberattack, with hackers reportedly downloading more than a terabyte of sensitive data, including several unaired episodes of shows including "Ballers" and "Room 104," personal contact information for some "Game of Thrones" actors, screen shots from unaired episodes of that show, and a month’s worth of emails from a top HBO executive. 

The HBO hackers are now demanding a multimillion-dollar ransom to keep them from releasing data online that potentially could include unaired episodes of "Game of Thrones." 

That’s exactly what happened with Netflix’s "Orange Is the New Black" last spring after the streaming service declined to pay a ransom.

HBO, which has said it's still assessing the situation, didn't immediately respond to a request for comment. The company has not confirmed whether any unaired episodes of its shows have been stolen. 

Regardless of the outcome of this incident, "Game of Thrones" is already the most widely pirated show in history, according to several estimates. The HBO series has topped the download rankings for the online publication TorrentFreak rankings for five consecutive years, with as many as 350,000 viewers reportedly downloading the season 6 finale shortly after it aired last spring.

Pirated video files are actively shared on what are called BitTorrent sites, and fans of TV shows and movies can also watch such content on illicit streaming sites.

Ethics aside—do you really want to steal the work of George R.R. Martin and actors like Maisie Williams?—it’s risky to visit these sites. In addition to the legal issues, they are often full of malware, making you vulnerable to hacking. And that's true whether you’re watching shows that have already aired or future episodes that have found their way online.

“Beware of things that are too good to be true,” says Raymond Van Dyke, an intellectual property attorney in Washington, D.C. 

Here’s what you need to know.

Yes, It's Illegal

BitTorrent is a protocol for sharing large files. They are broken down into smaller pieces stored on dozens of computers worldwide. Those pieces are stitched together when a viewer downloads the file.

Downloading copyrighted material using BitTorrent is, without question, illegal.

The fines under U.S copyright law, according to Van Dyke, are staggeringly large, reaching as much as $150,000 per download. You could also face separate criminal charges, both misdemeanor and felony, with penalties that could range up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000.

How about simply streaming a bootlegged copy of your favorite show? Is that better than downloading it? According to Van Dyke, streaming is illegal, too: "No difference between the two—the content is all that matters."

What Are the Risks?

Illegal downloads are taken seriously by law enforcement agencies, but they usually target those who distribute or facilitate the distribution of copyrighted content, not average consumers.

Large sites such as ExtraTorrent and KickAssTorrents have been shut down in recent years, and the founders of The Pirate Bay have served jail time in Sweden.

“The odds are that the content owners will not pursue individuals,” Van Dyke says. “However, there is no guarantee. Even a small amount of unauthorized copying could result in millions of dollars in liability.”

That’s because if you’re involved in BitTorrent sharing, you’re not merely downloading a copy for your own viewing pleasure. As part of the agreement, you’re also actively uploading content to the computers of hundreds or even thousands of other users. All that makes it much harder to claim that you're an innocent viewer, according to Van Dyke.

The more valuable the content, the more likely that you’ll be targeted for prosecution, he says—and unaired "Game of Thrones" episodes would probably fall into that category.

Your Computer Could Get Hacked

Though the chances of getting sued or arrested are real but somewhat remote, the chances of having your device compromised by malware on a sketchy site are pretty strong. And that has proved to be the biggest deterrent to many would-be viewers.

“I wasn’t particularly concerned about the fact that it’s illegal,” says a 20-something former BitTorrent downloader from Los Angeles who wished to remain anonymous. “But I was concerned about the possibility of malware.”

“There are some very real technical concerns," says Jason Syversen, CEO of the cybersecurity firm Siege. “You’re dealing with these shady third-party sites, so it’s a great opportunity for people to insert malware into the BitTorrent client as well as transferring files with malicious content.”

He adds that entertainment companies are widely believed to have seeded some downloads with invalid content and even tagging and tracking software in the hope of catching criminals. “They use that as bait,” he says. 

Streaming is not without its dangers, either. Streaming sites are perfect locations for so-called watering hole attacks, where an enticement—like an unreleased episode of a popular series—lures unsuspecting consumers, Syversen says. Hackers may then take advantage of a vulnerability in your browser to gain access to personal information on your computer.

“It’s the internet equivalent of going to the bad part of town and buying a movie that fell off the back of a truck,” he says.

And, It's Probably Not Worth It

The turn of the decade, according to our former downloader, was something of a golden age of pirated content. “You could find whatever you wanted,” he says with thinly veiled nostalgia. “And it felt as though it was safe.”

Today, would-be downloaders often end up at websites where they get the wrong episode or nothing at all. “It's just not worth your time,” he says. “It would take half an hour of scouring the internet to avoid paying three dollars for a show.”

And if you find the content you want on an illicit streaming site, it’s often delivered by a low-speed server that delivers stuttering video that may cut out halfway through.

So what are the alternatives? Well, you could just pay for the content you want—and HBO has joined streaming services such as Netflix to offer web-only subscriptions for those who don't want to add on to their pay-TV packages.

If you really feel the urge to get "Game of Thrones" free or very cheap, you could add the service to your existing cable package for the month of August and cancel it after the Season 7 finale airs on August 28. Or sign up for a 30-day free trial on HBO Now or Amazon Prime, then cancel it later.

Will you be cheating? Sorta. Will you be breaking the law? No.

And here's a final suggestion: Just invite yourself over to a friend’s house and offer to bring the dragon-themed cupcakes.

Editor's Note: This article has an updated comment by Jason Syversen. He previously suggested that the Motion Picture Association of America was involved in uploading files to BitTorrent sites.

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