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File Swapping: Dangers You May Not Know About

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If you have teens and an Internet connection in your home, there’s a good chance you’ve heard of strange words such as Gnutella, KaZaA, Morpheus, Grokster and the like. These are monikers given to software programs that allow “peer-to-peer” file sharing. In English, that means the ability to swap files between computers.

Peer-to-peer networks have been a point of huge debate over the last few years due to the constant flow of copyrighted music that occupies a large amount of the ‘Net’s capacity.

The pioneer of file sharing was Napster. But there was one big difference between this forefather and its offspring: It required a central host computer. And it was its centralized architecture that led to its demise. Arguing that the sharing of music between people who had no relationship with each other was infringement of copyright, the physical existence of a connecting computer and the necessity of a tangible company made Napster an easy target for the recording industry. The resulting legal assault blew Napster to bits.

Ironically, Napster's design could have provided a moderate amount of control over the types of material gushing through the network, whereas the new breeds of programs springing up in its place don't require a supervisory machine. With no way to watch over their activities, file swapping has become a much more open playing field.

While you may have decided that copyright infringement isn’t high on your priority list, (something you may want to reconsider) it’s important for parents to understand that these tools can be used to share any type of computer file—including far more insidious exploits than pirating music.
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Concerned that file swapping is becoming a distribution method for a wider variety of materials, the US Committee on Government Reform asked the General Accounting Office to determine “the ease of access to child pornography on peer-to-peer networks [and] the risk of inadvertent exposure of juvenile users of peer-to-peer networks to pornography including child pornography.”

The results proved the committee had good reason to be concerned.

To understand how young users can become unwitting consumers of filth, it helps to know how these programs work. In order to find a file on one of these services, you must use “keywords,” similar to using a search engine like Google. For example, if I wanted recordings of music by Tony Bennett, I would enter his name into the search box.

The interconnected computers would then scour their hard drives looking for the terms Tony or Bennett. In a few moments, I may have a selection of files I can try and download from various locations—although Tony may not be a hot name in the file-swapping arena.

The problem is anyone can place a file onto the network and call it anything they want. That means innocuous terms can return dangerous materials.

According to the official report, the GAO was required to work with the US Customs CyberSmuggling Center because, “child pornography cannot be accessed legally [in the United States] other than by law enforcement agencies.”

Together, they began their search using two types of keywords: Those typically known to return pornography in traditional Internet searches, and three keyword phrases with innocent connotations—the names of a popular female singer, child actor, and cartoon character.

The results may surprise you. Using the suspicious keywords in KaZaA, they found 42% of the files contained child pornography (which by definition means minors depicted in sexual acts), while another 34% were riddled with adult pornography.

But the other phrases didn't fare much better. Of the 177 images downloaded from the three keyword terms, 34% were pornographic, 14% were cartoon pornography, and another 8% were either child erotica or child pornography. Only 44% of the files captured using “innocent” keywords were classified as non-pornographic.

One of the references in the GAO study indicates that in 2001 alone, people over 14 years of age downloaded over 5,160,000,000 audio files. With the tremendous draw of “free” music (and often even videos and pirated movies), young people have a great attraction to this activity.

Certainly file-swapping services aren’t the only source for perverse sexual materials. Websites are by far the greatest purveyors of pornography in all its forms. However, the concern with this new technology is the young target audience and the rapid increase in its use to disseminate what are often illegal materials.

Considering the risks described here and recording companies increasing enforcement on those who share music, parents would do well to ask their children if they use these services. If the answer is “Yes,” you may want to consider curtailing these activities in your home.

The CyperTipline allows individuals to report any discoveries of child pornography and other illegal sexual materials. For more information, check this page.

For the complete GOA report, click here.

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About the Reviewer: Rod Gustafson

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