Buying a CD at your favorite store used to be the only way to access music copies until Napster appeared on the scene. Napster-once a popular file sharing application, now a legitimate music download store-used Peer-to-Peer technology that allowed users to download free music from other users willing to share their music copies. At its peak, 70 million users traded files on Napster regularly. Although Napster has changed, Peer-to-Peer networking (nicknamed P2P) is here to stay. P2P has opened the floodgates for anyone online to easily download all types of files, including the unintentional download of objectionable material or programs that are dangerous to your PC.
Peer-to-Peer Networking - What is it?
When perusing the Internet, you access websites through an application known as a browser. Common browser applications are Internet Explorer, Netscape, and Mozilla. Peer-to-Peer networking is similar in concept to a browser; it is an application that runs on your PC and allows sharing of files.
But Peer-to-Peer networking allows individual computers to communicate directly with each other rather than through a central server, as websites do. Once you have a Peer-to-Peer application installed on your computer you can allow anyone in the world to copy files from your home PC. This can be a single file, an entire directory or more. If you don't exercise caution, your entire hard drive-including confidential documents-may be readily available to anyone in the world, and you have no way of knowing who is accessing your files.
Peer-to-Peer applications have a search function similar to a search engine. Just like an Internet search engine, you type in any topic and receive matching search results. But P2P search results come from individual Internet-connected PCs worldwide, not from registered websites.
Why Is Peer-to-Peer File Sharing Dangerous?
There are a number of reasons why P2P file sharing should concern you. Along with access to "free" music downloads comes the potential for dangerous software to be installed on you computer, such as viruses, Trojan horses, spyware, and more. These uninvited programs can extract or destroy your computer information.
Viruses, Trojan Horses
When downloading a shared file, one of the inherent dangers is to unknowingly download a computer virus (that can quietly spread to others from you) or a Trojan horse (a program that claims to do one thing but actually does another) onto your computer. These can cause all kinds of problems from erasing files on the hard drive to automatically sending pornographic email to all of the friends you have listed in your mail directory.
Many of the Peer-to-Peer applications now install spyware-unannounced software that tracks your computer content or activity. Applications such as Cydoor, New.net, TopText, SaveNow, Webhancer, and OnFlow are a few of the applications that may serve up ad banners and ad messages or quietly track your Internet surfing habits. If you've noticed that you are getting numerous popup messages, odds are your Peer-to-Peer file sharing program has brought home some unwelcome guests.
Illegal, Unethical and Immoral
Most file sharing activities include illegal, unethical, or immoral activity. Downloading copyrighted music, copyrighted software, pornographic material and even child pornography are common uses of Peer-to-Peer file sharing.
Since you will never know exactly what you are downloading off of someone else's computer, it's best to be cautious. Virtually any program that you download from someone else's PC could have something harmful attached. Just as you wouldn't give a stranger the key to your home, be careful who you give access to your computer. Is the free music worth the risk?
If you must use some kind of Peer-to-Peer application, it is best to use a separate computer with a separate hard drive so that your personal information isn't available to the computer on the other end. Otherwise, we recommend staying away from Peer-to-Peer file sharing.
Some of the most common Peer-to-Peer applications include:
- File Navigator
- Junk Monkey
- Free Net