Peer-to-Peer File-Sharing Safety

Four tips on staying as safe and secure as possible

P2P Network security system
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Peer-to-Peer (P2P) file-sharing is the sharing and distribution of digital media over a P2P network. It's different from downloading a file from the internet because you use a special software program to find another computer that has the file you want. BitTorrent sites and other P2P networks offer a huge amount of freely available music, videos, and other files to download and share.

While this all sounds great, there are security concerns any time you're sharing files on your computer with unknown internet users or downloading files from unvetted sources.

The terms BitTorrent and P2P are often used interchangeably, but they are different. BitTorrent is a protocol, while P2P actually describes the way files are shared.

Dangers of P2P File-Sharing

When you access files on other computers within a P2P network, you must open a specific TCP port through your firewall so the P2P software can communicate with your computer. Once this port is opened, you are no longer protected from malicious traffic.

When you download files from other peers on a P2P network, you can't be sure the file is what it appears to be. You may think you're downloading a great new utility, but you can't be positive it isn't a Trojan or some other malware.

Stay Safe When Using a P2P Network

To stay as safe and secure as possible, here are four key points to consider when using P2P networks for file-sharing.

Never Use P2P on a Corporate Network

Avoid P2P file-sharing on a corporate network. At the very least, don't ever install a P2P client or use P2P network file-sharing on a corporate network without explicit permission, preferably in writing.

If other P2P users download files from your company computer, it can clog the company's network bandwidth. Even worse, you may also inadvertently share company files of a sensitive or confidential nature.

Beware the Client Software

There are two reasons to be cautious of the P2P network software you must install to participate in the file-sharing network. First, this software is often under continuous development and may be buggy. Installing it could cause system crashes or problems with your computer.

Another factor is that the P2P client software is typically hosted on every participating user's machine and could potentially be replaced with a malicious version. While the P2P providers have security safeguards in place, it's still something to consider.

Don't Overshare

When you install P2P client software and join a P2P network such as BitTorrent, a default folder for sharing is usually designated during the installation. This folder should contain only files that you want others on the P2P network to be able to view and download.

Many users unknowingly designate their entire hard drive as their shared files folder, which enables everyone on the P2P network to see and access virtually every file and folder on the entire hard drive, including critical operating system files.

Scan Everything

Treat all downloaded files with the utmost suspicion. There's no way to tell if you're downloading an innocent file or a virus.

Run protective security software and antivirus software. Scan your computer periodically with tools such as Adaware to ensure you haven't unwittingly installed spyware on your system. Perform a virus scan using updated antivirus software on any file you download before you execute or open it. A file could still contain malicious code that your antivirus vendor is unaware of or doesn't detect, but scanning it before opening it will help you prevent most attacks.

Some files that are available on BitTorrent sites are illegally shared by users. To stay on the right side of the law, use only legal BitTorrent networks for file-sharing. This will ensure that you are downloading and sharing only legal content.