• United States
by Ann Harrison

Masking the identities of file traders

Jul 17, 20034 mins
Enterprise Applications

* Anonymous file trading is difficult but not impossible

Will file traders be willing to compromise convenience and usability in exchange for concealing their activities from litigious copyright enforcers?

The question is growing increasingly urgent. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) is threatening to sue file traders for alleged copyright violations, and has convinced a judge to force Verizon Communications to reveal the identity of a long-contested Kazaa user. The RIAA has already successfully sued four university students, prompting schools to crack down on file trading on their networks. Copyright holders can currently locate file traders by simply issuing a subpoena under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

The largest P2P network, Kazaa, does not make it easy for users to remain anonymous. P2P networks are designed to efficiently broadcast the contents of shared folders, and the IP addresses of users can easily be traced back to the ISP, company or university network. So far, neither Kazaa nor Grokster has detected any great demand from users for enhanced anonymization.

Legal threats have not decreased traffic on these networks. This makes sense when you consider how many hundreds of millions of file traders are out there and how difficult it would be for the entertainment industry to sue even a large fraction of them.

But even P2P networks that try to help conceal their users’ identities are running into trouble. A federal appeals court recently issued a fuzzy ruling that seemed to indicate that the P2P network Aimster, which provides encryption, could be liable for contributory copyright infringement because it helps conceal illegal activities and hampers the search for evidence. 

The ruling is bound to frighten some P2P networks that want to offer encrypting services or anonymizing services, yet fear a deep-pockets legal action by the entertainment industry.

Some P2P networks, like Blubster, are cashing in on legal concerns for marketing purposes. Blubster is offering a “new, secure, decentralized, self-assembling network that provides users with private, anonymous accounts.” Blubster might help mask how many files a user has for download, but it doesn’t conceal IP addresses.

Helping to conceal the number of files traded could deflect investigators who would target users on P2P networks that they could easily profile with automated search programs. But the entertainment industry could also single out providers that offer privacy enhancements just to discourage others from doing so.

The burden of protecting the privacy of file traders will likely fall on the traders themselves. Users who want to anonymously download files can log on to one of the growing numbers of free IEEE 802.11 Wi-Fi access points that do not require a password or a subscription. They can also go to Kinko’s to get an anonymous connection. I use both tactics. But unless you live near an open wireless network, this is inconvenient for those who want to trade large numbers of files at home.

A better solution for home file traders is Freenet, which conceals the IP addresses of users uploading and downloading files. Users may not even know what files are stored on their hard drives. The service is more difficult to search and offers less content than other P2P networks.

Still, Freenet is reporting a threefold increase in traffic and sharply increased donations since the RIAA announced it would begin targeting individual users. Freenet was never intended as a user-friendly music-trading network. It was founded to protect political speech in repressive regimes. Yet Freenet serves as a model for how free software can be used to support anonymous publishing and downloading of information. Since its creators do not control the network, they cannot be dragged into court and forced to compromise or shut down the service.

Like any evolving organism, P2P networks will adjust their structures to deflect legal assaults, and Freenet may serve as the template for a new generation of services that may become more user-friendly. The threat of costly lawsuits will also hopefully spark increased use of anonymizing tools and strong privacy software, which have yet to catch on with consumers. Citizens need to learn to treasure, and fight for, their privacy rights on and off line. The courts have upheld anonymity as a constitutional right. P2P users may be on the vanguard of defending it.