All the kids are doing it. And depending on which news reports you read, it's either the inevitable wave of the future or another sign of the collapse of our society - or both. But what is filesharing really?
Filesharing is the term for software designed to make it easier for you to share stuff through your computer with other people. (I use the technical term "stuff" here because you can share literally any electronic file through these tools but the most common shared files are documents, music files and videos – and viruses. More on that in a minute.) The most common form of filesharing is "peer-to-peer" (P2P) sharing, a way to share files directly from your computer to someone else's computer without needing to store it on a server somewhere. If I want to download a file that you've offered up for sharing, I reach through the internet and grab it directly off your computer.
This kind of filesharing requires special software such as Limewire, BitTorrent or Kazaa. These applications create an index of the files that you've offered for sharing and publish the index to the Internet so others can find your files. They also let you access the index and download the files you want. Filesharing is an easy way to publish documents widely and can get you access to all kinds of free content. Music is especially easy to find.
The problem with filesharing is that it exposes you and your computer to all sorts of risks that are not disclosed by the filesharing network or those "friends" who are pressuring your kids.
- When you use P2P, it is essentially impossible to verify that the file is trustworthy. Hackers hide spyware, viruses, worms and trojan horses and other malicious code into the files. When you download the file, you infect your own computer.
- P2P also opens up your computer to outsiders. The applications claim to only expose certain directories but 1) you don't know if the application is locking the folders down properly and 2) it's too easy to misfile a confidential document in a shared folder. Any little mistake opens up your confidential information to the world.
- Most P2P applications require you to open up certain ports on your firewall so it can send or receive the files. Hackers exploit those open ports to attack your computer directly anytime it is connected to the internet.
- And, of course, the big risk that got so much press when Napster was being sued into bankruptcy is the phenomenally high proportion of copyrighted material being illegally offered for "sharing". If you download pirated content, even unknowingly, you could face fines or other legal action. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) is especially aggressive about finding and suing individual users who have illegally copied content on their computers.
If you run a network, either at a business or at home, I strongly recommend that you block filesharing sites. Remember, you go to jail or pay the fine whether they downloaded the illegal software with your knowledge or not. If you have kids, turn on your computer's parental controls and block those sites. Teach your kids to buy their music legitimately.