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[ISN] Beware P2P Networks With A Tunnel To Confidential Data, Study Warns


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 
commissioned. Whoops.

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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