What You Need To Know About Peer-to-Peer File Sharing

P2P sharing on world map

BitTorrent. uTorrent. The Pirate Bay. These are just a few of the many popular peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing sites you’ve probably heard of. Since its increase in popularity in the late 1990s, P2P file sharing has had its fair share of backlash for enabling illegal activity. Run a Google News search on peer-to-peer file sharing, and you’d find headlines like:

“Barre man charged with promoting child pornography.”

“Is the free download of uTorrent legal?”

“Illegal downloaders in federal court’s crosshairs.”

There’s another aspect to P2P that has traditionally caused concern: computer security and privacy risks.

If you aren’t careful, P2P file sharing can subject you to spyware, viruses, Trojan horses, worms and identity theft. Some P2P applications can even modify or penetrate your computer’s firewall without detection.

Here’s a look at what P2P file sharing is, why you might use it, and how to stay safe if you do.

What is P2P File Sharing?
P2P file sharing is the process of sharing and transferring digital files from one computer to another. In a P2P network, each ‘peer’ is an end-user’s computer connected to the other ‘peer’ via the Internet – without going through an intermediary server. To participate, you download and install a P2P software program. Some P2P programs work only with a single P2P network. Others work with multiple networks. Napster was an early and famous example of P2P file sharing.

Why Use P2P File Sharing?
P2P programs can be an efficient way to share large files with others, such as personal video recordings or large sets of photos. P2P is also used to facilitate direct communications between computer or device users. Chances are you’re already using some form of P2P technology: for example, Skype built its communications systems on P2P technology.

P2P file sharing could play an even larger role in your computer activities in the future. Some believe P2P could serve as a future foundation for legal content delivery. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings (half-jokingly) suggested that the company might use P2P video streaming to sidestep challenges it faces with ISPs like Comcast.

How Can You Stay Safe When Using P2P File Sharing?
1. Before you start, make sure your computer’s security software is up-to-date
Check that your firewall protection hasn’t been disabled. If a P2P program requests that you disable or alter your firewall’s settings, you’re probably not dealing with a legitimate P2P program. And make sure you have a solid antivirus software up and running to prevent any malware from shared files

2. Stick to legal file-sharing services
BitTorrent has evolved into one of the most popular file sharing protocols, with plenty of legal content available for download. Other sites offering legal music and movie downloads include Joost, Miro, Babelgum, and BBC’s iPlayer.

3. Use your computer’s security software to scan downloads
If any files are flagged as risky, quarantine and/or delete them immediately.

4. Don’t upload (or download) copyrighted material
Want to share your digital copy of Iron Man 3 with the world? Your generosity could get you into costly legal trouble. Media companies have successfully sued college students and others who illegally uploaded copyrighted music, movies, and other content. One famous case was Sony BMG Entertainment v. Tenebaum, which went all the way to the Supreme Court.

5. Pay attention when you install P2P programs
Often, it’s tempting to check email or Facebook while downloading and installing software. But you should give the downloading and installation of any P2P program your complete attention. Make sure you’re clear which folders on your computer will be made public – you could be exposing private data on your hard drive.

6. Close the P2P connection when you’re finished
When you close a file-sharing software program’s window, your connection to the P2P network may remain active. This could give others access to your shared files, which in turn may increase your security risks. It’s best to get in the habit of shutting down the program when you’re not using it.

7. Refrain from using P2P file sharing at work
Unless there’s a valid work-related reason, it’s best to limit your file-sharing activities to your own computers. Employers often have policies against using P2P programs on work computers.

8. Make sure your kids understand the risks
When unsupervised, kids can wander into ‘bad neighborhoods’ on the Internet. Take a few minutes to educate them about the risks in downloading files off the Internet, and put safe-browsing tools into place.

P2P file sharing has its advantages: by enabling users to connect to each other directly, P2P can use less bandwidth and deliver fast file transfers, often at little or no cost.

But it does come with dangers, so proceed cautiously. Keep our tips in mind when you’re utilizing P2P programs. And if you have any doubts, just don’t do it.

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