By Larry Greenemeier
May 15, 2007
Peer-to-peer networks could be more than a nuisance in the workplace,
they might also be providing cyberthieves with a tunnel into your most
confidential data. So says a new study of corporate data leaks released
Tuesday by Dartmouth business school researchers.
"Many of the biggest breaches in recent years were inadvertent
disclosures," says Eric Johnson, professor of operations management at
Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business and director of the school's
Glassmeyer/McNamee Center for Digital Strategies. Johnson co-authored
the study along with Scott Dynes, a senior research fellow at
Dartmouth's Institute for Security Technology Studies.
One of the major problems, they found, was that users were
insufficiently protecting their files and data from peer-to-peer
networks. "Like most people I talked to, I underestimated the scope of
the problem," Johnson told InformationWeek. "The kinds of leaks coming
out of these organizations would make their hair stand on end, in terms
of both the amount and type of information leaked."
The Dartmouth study notes that there are an estimated 10 million users
sharing music, video, software, and photos over peer-to-peer networks,
up from about 4 million in 2003. This doesn't even include BitTorrent, a
popular peer-to-peer application for video files that's difficult to
monitor. Meanwhile, efforts by ISPs, corporations, and copyright holders
to limit peer-to-peer through technology (such as site blocking, traffic
filtering, and content poisoning) or through the courts (the most
notable being the Recording Industry Association of America prosecution
of individual users and file sharing firms) have prompted peer-to-peer
developers to create decentralized, encrypted, anonymous networks that
can find their way through corporate and residential firewalls.
"These networks are almost impossible to track, are designed to
accommodate large numbers of clients, and are capable of transferring
vast amounts of data," the study says.
And now the bad news. Criminals are actively searching peer-to-peer
networks for any personal information they can use to commit identity
theft. There are several ways for confidential data to find its way to a
peer network, including instances where users accidentally share folders
containing such data, users store music and other data in the same
folder that is shared, or users download malware that exposes their file
directories to the network. A lot of identity theft victims "don't
realize that their son was on LimeWire last night sharing their
financial information," Johnson says. "Much of this software has
interface designs that are confusing and even deceptive in a way that
gets people to share, without knowing it, their whole hard drive."
Identity theft has become a bleak fact of life for many people. Many
would-be identity thieves simply troll the Internet looking for
sensitive information mistakenly posted to Web sites. Johnson and his
colleagues have tracked this behavior by ordering credit cards and phone
cards and then publicly disclosing account information via the Web. "We
leaked a live Visa card so we could watch what the thieves were doing
with the information," he says, adding that he found that cyberthieves
were using the stolen accounts in conjunction with PayPal and other
online payment services to try to cover their tracks.
Johnson and his colleagues found lots of supposedly confidential
information floating freely out on the Web, including job performance
reviews and a bank's spreadsheet containing 23,000 business accounts
including their contact names and addresses, account numbers, company
positions, and relationship managers at the bank. He even found the
results of a "confidential" security audit that a company had
One of the most effective ways to prevent business information from
being leaked through peer-to-peer networks is to understand how these
services are used. "Security people say they've blocked ports inside
their firewalls so that users can't connect into peer-to-peer networks,"
Johnson says. "That's fine until those employees take their laptops home
at night or go to a Starbucks and connect to a peer-to-peer network."
There are ways of tracking whether corporate data has been leaked onto
peer-to-peer networks. Security pros can set up their own accounts on
the most popular peer-to-peer networks, which include Gnutella,
FastTrack, and eDonkey, and search to see if any information being
offered resembles their proprietary data or intellectual property.
"Create a digital footprint for your company," Johnson says. Keep track
of all searchable keywords that would lead a Web surfer to your company,
including firm names, abbreviations, ticker symbols, brand names,
subsidiaries, etc., and use those terms to search the peer-to-peer
The idea for the Dartmouth study came from Homeland Security
Department-sponsored work Johnson and his colleagues had been doing in
studying international cyberattacks on U.S.-based targets. As the
Internet increasingly becomes a part of the country's critical
infrastructure, like telephone networks or power grids, Homeland
Security wants businesses to protect themselves from cyberthreats.
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