Millions of people use file sharing sites to trade music and movie files over the internet. Most have heard of the legal risks involved, and people from all over getting busted for downloading copyrighted material without permission. But, there are a lot of legal downloads, too. So, what should you look out for when sharing or trading information?
You may think downloading songs to your computer is a cheap and easy way to listen to your favorite tunes. But, it may do more harm than good. Even if you share legally, there's another serious threat the government wants to warn you about, and it could get you into big trouble.
There are numerous software applications that allow users to share music, videos, and games using what's called a "peer-to-peer network." "You can go online and download some software onto your computer that connects you with a network of other users, and you can share files with them," says Mary Engle from the Federal Trade Commission.
The problem occurs when users end up sharing more than they realize. "We're concerned that consumers may accidentally share folders that contain private documents that they don't intend to share," says Engle. They could become victims of identity theft. The Feds recently nabbed a man for using file sharing programs to steal tax forms and credit reports. They say he opened fake accounts and bilked people out of tens of thousands of dollars.
There have been other security breaches, too. "Employees will use laptops that they use in a company and then bring them home, and children would install software and the files, which were taken out of the office, might be shared on a network," says Engle. But, how does this happen? When you install the file sharing software, there is a designated folder where you save files you download off a network. This is where users should be alert: Sometimes the folder is installed in "My Documents" where you store your personal information, or sometimes someone might move installed software to this folder without understanding that sensitive material may now be easily accessible.
"You've got identity thieves who are searching these sites and what they find is lots of personal information like social security numbers, credit card information, financial information," says Engle. The government is working with file sharing sites, like LimeWire, to improve privacy protections. And, they say the industry is taking action. "The newer versions of LimeWire will prevent people from sharing file types that are most likely to have sensitive information," says Engle.
Expert Nathan Good says some services allow you to block access to your computer by other users. But, that practice is frowned upon since the idea is to share. He says the key to safety is to separate your shared files from your personal files. "Go to a location where you wouldn't inadvertently transfer personal information, create a folder called 'File Sharing' and then you can share that one and you should be okay," says Good.
LimeWire's Sam Berlin says as long as people know to protect their private information, file sharing is fun and safe. Still, Nathan Good predicts accidental file sharing and identity theft will increase, simply because it's the world we live in. "We have a lot more digital information to inevitably share on these networks, and so protecting this digital information is very important," he says.
The Federal Trade Commission is working with the Department of Justice and Congress in monitoring file sharing services and those involved in identity theft. For more information, visit www.onguardonline.gov. Nathan Good and the FTC recommend parents talk to their kids about the privacy threats involved with file sharing so personal information isn't accidentally shared.