By Jaikumar Vijayan
June 12, 2007
It's not just the Recording Industry Association of America that people
need to worry about when downloading music from P2P networks.
A surprisingly high number of consumers sharing music and other files on
peer-to-peer systems are inadvertently exposing all sorts of bank
account and similar personal information on their computers to criminals
lurking on the networks to harvest data. And it's not just users at home
who are exposing information about themselves; so are a large number of
employees within banks, as well as banks' contractors and suppliers.
That's the conclusion of a study on the dangers of inadvertent data
disclosure on file-sharing networks that was conducted by Dartmouth
University's Tuck School of Business.
The study examined data involving P2P searches and files related to the
top 30 U.S. banks over a seven-week period between December 2006 and
February 2007. The university used a search engine technology from
Tiversa Inc. to gather and analyze all P2P traffic that mentioned those
banks by name or mapped to a specific digital footprint that Dartmouth
created for each financial institution. Data was gathered from P2P
networks such as Gnutella, FastTrack, eDonkey and BitTorrent.
The analysis showed that a large number of searches made on those
networks were aimed at uncovering sensitive financial data from
individuals, said study author Eric Johnson, a professor of operations
management at the school's Center for Digital Strategies. "Our analysis
clearly reveals a significant information risk firms and individuals
face from P2P file-sharing networks," he said.
When people use popular P2P clients such as Kazaa, Lime Wire, BearShare,
Morpheus and FastTrack, they often are sharing far more than just media
files, Johnson said. "In many cases they are sharing the contents of
their entire hard drive" with others on the file-sharing network,
That's because many of these client tools are designed specifically to
quickly search for and share certain types of media files on a user's
system. Johnson said, Normally, such P2P clients allow users to download
files to and share items from a particular folder. But if proper care is
not taken to control the access that these clients have on a system, it
is very easy to expose far more data than intended, he said.
There are several ways this can happen, Johnson noted in his research
paper. For instance, when a music file is accidentally dropped into a
folder containing other data, the contents of the entire folder could
end up being shared on a P2P network without a user's knowledge. Many
P2P client software tools have confusing interfaces that could result in
users sharing folders that they did not intend to. Similarly, some
file-sharing apps feature wizards that scan an individual's computer and
recommend folders containing media to share. If a sensitive file exists
in one of those recommended folders, it could get exposed, Johnson wrote
in his research.
The kind of information that can be exposed in this manner is
astounding, Johnson said. "We found files containing all the information
needed to commit identity theft. We found almost every kind of business
document, from spreadsheets to performance reviews. In one instance, we
found a bank spreadsheet with account information on 23,000 business
accounts that was leaked. We even found a security evaluation done by a
third party contractor" of a bank network.
Almost 80% of the leaked information analyzed in the Dartmouth study
came from home PC users. The rest came from systems belonging to bank
employees or banks' partners, Johnson said.
While some of the information was inadvertently leaked, there are
growing signs that cybercriminals are using P2P networks to specifically
search for and harvest such data, Johnson said. A significant portion of
the search terms that were analyzed during the Dartmouth study appeared
to be looking for databases, account and user information, passwords and
routing and PIN numbers, Johnson said, Sometimes, sensitive data was
accidentally exposed via the coincidental association of a search term
with sensitive information. For example, users searching for songs
containing the words golden Or west in the title pulled up files
containing account information belonging to Golden West bank, Johnson
said in his report. Similarly users looking to download the song "State
Street Residential" sometimes pulled in data belonging to State Street
The Dartmouth study raises concerns similar to those outlined in a
report released in March by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office
(USPTO). That report was based on an analysis of five specific features
included in file-sharing software from Kazaa, Lime Wire, Morpheus,
BearShare and eDonkey. It concluded that the distributors of the
software deliberately included those features in their tools, despite
knowing that the features could cause users to inadvertently share
sensitive data with others on P2P networks.
The report was sent to the U.S. Department of Justice, the Federal Trade
Commission and the National Association of Attorneys General.
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