Peer-to-peer file sharing, or P2P, has become enormously popular on college campuses across the country because it allows students to easily exchange music and video files over the Internet. Tens of millions of people use P2P applications such as Limewire, eDonkey, and BearShare to fill their MP3 players and hard drives with all the music and movies they want, all for free. But even “free” has a cost.
In addition to violating copyright laws, there are other potential dangers when downloading files via P2P. For instance, hackers know that source files on P2P networks are not being validated, so it’s easy to trick you into downloading a virus or spyware instead of the Justin Beiber video you thought you were getting.
The other major issue is the simple fact that P2P programs share your data with all of the other P2P users in cyberspace. Because of this, there is a good chance you might unknowingly share your most precious and private data with the rest of the world.
During installation, P2P programs scan your hard drive, looking for files to share. If you do not exercise caution, your entire hard drive, including any confidential documents it may contain, could be left wide open for anyone to access.
Think about the files you have on your PC right now. Are you storing documents that have your passwords, Social Security number, or bank account information? If you have P2P software on your PC, you could be targeted for identity theft.
Digging through P2P networks for my own research, I’ve uncovered tax returns, student loan applications, credit reports, and Social Security numbers. I’ve found love letters, private photos, videos, and just about anything else that can be saved as a digital file.
P2P networks have even exposed details on a U.S. Secret Service safe house for the president and his family, and revealed blueprints for President Obama’s private helicopter. While you probably don’t have state secrets stored on your PC, you should still take care to keep your sensitive files safe.
Here are some tips to protect you from accidentally sharing data on a P2P network:
The smartest way to stay safe is not to install P2P software on your computer in the first place.
If you think a family member may have installed P2P software on their computer, check for new, unfamiliar applications. A look at your “All Programs Menu” will show nearly every program on your computer. If you see one you don’t recognize, do an online search to see if it is a P2P application.
Set administrative privileges on your computer to prevent the installation of new software without your knowledge.
Use comprehensive security software such as McAfee® Total Protection and keep it up to date.
Make sure your firewall is enabled, and if an application asks you to change your settings to enable access to the Internet, don’t allow it.
P2P file sharing can be tempting, but in most cases, the costly dangers just aren’t worth it.
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