By Anne Broache
Staff Writer, CNET News.com
July 24, 2007
WASHINGTON -- Politicians charged on Tuesday that peer-to-peer networks
can pose a "national security threat" because they enable federal
employees to share sensitive or classified documents accidentally from
At a hearing on the topic, Government Reform Committee Chairman Henry
Waxman (D-Calif.) said, without offering details, that he is considering
new laws aimed at addressing the problem. He said he was troubled by the
possibility that foreign governments, terrorists or organized crime
could gain access to documents that reveal national secrets.
Also at the hearing, Mark Gorton, the chairman of Lime Wire, which makes
the peer-to-peer software LimeWire, was assailed for allegedly harming
national security through offering his product.
The documents at risk of exposure supposedly include classified
government military orders, confidential corporate-accounting documents,
localized terrorist threat assessments, as well as personal information
such as federal workers' credit card numbers, bank statements, tax
returns and medical records, according to recent studies by the U.S.
House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Government Reform,
the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, and private researchers.
Evidence that sensitive information is accessible through peer-to-peer
networks illustrates "the importance of strengthening the laws and rules
protecting personal information held by federal agencies" and other
organizations, said Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), the committee's ranking
member, who has sponsored a bill that would impose new requirements on
government agencies that discover security breaches. "We need to do this
The politicians present Tuesday generally said they believe that there
are benefits to peer-to-peer technology but that it will imperil
national security, intrude on personal privacy and violate copyright
law, if not properly restricted. Both Waxman and Rep. Paul Hodes
(D-N.H.) dubbed P2P networks ongoing national security threats.
Congressional gripes about P2P networks are hardly new, and in the past,
they have reinforced concerns raised by the Motion Picture Association
of America and the Recording Industry Association of America. Four years
ago, the same committee held a pair of hearings that condemned
pornography sharing on P2P networks and also explored leaks of sensitive
information. And throughout 2004, Congress considered multiple proposals
that would have restricted--or effectively banned--many popular
file-swapping networks. Waxman noted that he was not seeking to ban
peer-to-peer networks this time around but rather to "achieve a balance
that protects sensitive government, personal and corporate information
and copyright laws."
To be sure, the kind of information leaks that alarmed politicians at
Tuesday's hearing are most likely already against the law or federal
policy. It is illegal for government employees to leak certain types of
classified documents without approval, either electronically or through
traditional paper means.
Mary Koelbel Engle, the associate director for advertising practices in
the Federal Trade Commission's Bureau of Consumer Protection, said her
agency has found in its studies of peer-to-peer network use that risks
to sensitive information "stem largely from how individuals use the
technology rather than being inherent in the technology itself."
Some politicians nonetheless lashed out at the sole representative from
a peer-to-peer software company at Tuesday's hearing: Lime Wire's
Gorton, who is also CEO of parent company Lime Group.
The most scathing criticism came from Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), who
launched into a lengthy monologue in which he deemed Gorton "one of the
most naive chairmen and CEOs I've ever run across," and accused his
company of making the "skeleton keys" that grant access to material
harmful to U.S. national security.
"I'd feel more than a shade of guilt at this point, having made the
laptop a dangerous weapon against the security of the United States,"
Cooper said. "Mr. Gorton, you seem to lack imagination about how your
product can be deliberately misused by evildoers against this country."
(Cooper also, at one point, claimed that Gorton's own home computer was
probably leaking sensitive documents.)
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) warned Gorton that Lime Wire's practices
may open the company up to serious legal liability.
"Would it surprise you if you have a string of lawsuits for inherent
defect in your product if people like Charlie Mueller of Missouri finds
out he's lost his IRS filings and feels he's been damaged?" Issa asked.
Gorton repeatedly defended his company's practices and said he wasn't
aware of the extent to which national security information was being
accessed through his network.
Lime Wire strives to make its product easier to understand and is
working on a new version even more tailored to the "neophyte" user,
Gorton said. The software incorporates a number of warnings intended to
stave off inadvertent file sharing, he added. For instance, pop-up
messages appear when users attempt to share folders, such as the
all-encompassing "My Documents" folder and the root directory, which are
considered likely to contain sensitive information.
"A lot of the information that gets out there now is because people
accidentally share directories that they wouldn't mean to share
clearly," Gorton said. "Those warnings are not enough, at least in a
handful of cases."
That assertion drew sharp disagreement from Thomas Sydnor, an
attorney-advisor in the Patent Office's copyright group. He said
peer-to-peer users are being tricked into sharing files they don't
intend to make public and claimed that LimeWire's warnings to that
effect don't always appear as they should.
In research for a report released in March, the Patent Office found it
"stunning to see features that are incredibly easy to misuse," Sydnor
said. "You can go to an interface in these programs that looks like
you're doing nothing except choosing a place to store files, and you end
up sharing recursively all the folders on your computer. It's very easy
to make a catastrophic mistake."
Earlier this year, the Department of Transportation experienced an
incident in which an employee's daughter installed LimeWire on the home
computer that her mother occasionally uses for telework--and
misconfigured it in such a way that documents from the department and
the National Archives were open to others using the network--including a
Fox News reporter. Forensic analysis determined that some of those
documents were already publicly accessible and that none of the DOT
documents contained sensitive personally identifiable information about
anyone other than the employee herself.
The agency's chief information officer, Daniel Mintz, told the committee
that his agency already has sufficient authority to combat "inadvertent"
file sharing and that it already is required to take such activity into
account in its annual information security reports to Congress.
The key to preventing additional incidents like that one, Mintz told the
politicians, is for his agency to step up oversight and "to make sure
we're really pushing the policy," which requires written authorization
for installation of P2P programs on government machines. That also means
beefing up training for its employees and making sure that they're aware
of what the limits are, he added.
General Wesley Clark, who now serves on the board of a small company
called Tiversa that makes applications designed to monitor peer-to-peer
file-sharing activity, called for "some pretty hard-nosed policies by
business and government contractors that prevent people from doing
government work on computers that have anything to do with the
"Even when people...are sophisticated with computers, they can still
make a mistake, and all that material can be gone in an instant," the
former Democratic presidential candidate told the committee.
CNET News.com's Declan McCullagh contributed to this report.
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