File Sharing 101Kim Boatman
When you download that last episode of “Lost,” a new Tom Cruise movie or the latest best-seller online for free, you may find you’ve gotten more than you bargained for.
Online file-sharing sites can pose a significant risk to your personal data. And they’re proliferating quickly, despite efforts from the entertainment industries to combat piracy. Increasingly, some capitalize on the popularity of peer-to-peer networks to troll for your personal information.
The risks of file sharing
Peer-to-peer networks allow participants to share files online from their computers. Typically, you’ll set configurations to allow sharing of only certain files. But if you’re not vigilant or don’t understand how to designate files, you can expose sensitive information to others.
University of Ottawa researchers recently found tens of thousands of breached medical files when they conducted searches for personal information. Both patients and medical offices had left the information exposed. And in February, the FTC informed 100 organizations that personal information about employees and customers had been exposed through peer-to-peer file-sharing networks.
“These types of download protocols and files are a bad idea,” says Michael Miora, a security expert and founder of ContingenZ, a company that offers companies training and management for disaster recovery and security threats. “In order to participate in the download, you must also become a server of the file, or a ‘seed,’ and therefore make at least a part of your system available to anyone and everyone, which is not a good idea from any point of view.”
Do’s and don’ts of file sharing
Many file-sharing enthusiasts ignore the potential for harm, says Scott Steinberg, CEO of high-tech consulting firm TechSavvy Global. Files you download may contain harmful malware that could damage your computer’s hard drive and other files. “A healthy dose of suspicion goes a long way,” cautions Steinberg.
If you participate in file sharing, consider these tips to mitigate your risk:
- Do dedicate a computer for file sharing. Participate in peer-to-peer networks on a computer where you don’t store sensitive information or personal files, says Steinberg. “File share on a computer where you can afford to lose anything and everything.” Also, be sure to turn on your firewall and update your anti-virus protection regularly.
- Don’t download copyrighted material. Just because so many people download illegally doesn’t mean you’ll avoid prosecution, says Kirchner. Also keep in mind that bad guys know the appeal of free copyrighted material, and they’ll often mislabel files in an attempt to trick you to download their virus.
- Do stick to BitTorrent downloading. BitTorrent is a global standard for delivering high-quality content over the Internet through file sharing. Using BitTorrent networks is less risky because files are broken up into tiny packets that are sent bit by bit, and your packets are downloaded from multiple users at once, explains Zak Kirchner, a digital media analyst with Interpret LLC, which offers marketing research and consulting for the entertainment industry. File sharing that allows a direct download from one person’s computer to your PC is more risky, says Kirchner.
- Don’t ignore your peers. Sites often have indicators that tell you whether a file works. Look for files with high ratings and a large number of users. “Allow the wisdom of the crowd to guide you,” advises Steinberg.
- Do ask for help. In most cases, sensitive information is left vulnerable because file sharers inadvertently share all their files or expose the wrong files. Before you start file sharing, research the process online or ask a savvy friend to take you through it, says Kirchner.
- Do stay domestic. Avoid files from foreign countries, suggests Steinberg. A significant amount of malware is generated in countries such as Russia and Hungary.
It pays to be alert if you file share, says Steinberg. Look for such irregularities as misspellings and think carefully about what you might be risking. “File sharing comes with no promises,” he notes.
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