Congress: P2P networks harm national security

House of Representatives panel chairman says peer-to-peer networks pose a "national security threat," new laws needed.

WASHINGTON--Politicians charged on Tuesday that peer-to-peer networks can pose a "national security threat" because they enable federal employees to share sensitive or classified documents accidentally from their computers.

At a hearing on the topic, Government Reform Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) said, without offering details, that he is considering new laws aimed at addressing the problem. He said he was troubled by the possibility that foreign governments, terrorists or organized crime could gain access to documents that reveal national secrets.

Also at the hearing, Mark Gorton, the chairman of Lime Wire, which makes the peer-to-peer software LimeWire, was assailed for allegedly harming national security through offering his product.

The documents at risk of exposure supposedly include classified government military orders, confidential corporate-accounting documents, localized terrorist threat assessments, as well as personal information such as federal workers' credit card numbers, bank statements, tax returns and medical records, according to recent studies by the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, and private researchers.

Evidence that sensitive information is accessible through peer-to-peer networks illustrates "the importance of strengthening the laws and rules protecting personal information held by federal agencies" and other organizations, said Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), the committee's ranking member, who has sponsored a bill that would impose new requirements on government agencies that discover security breaches. "We need to do this quickly."

The politicians present Tuesday generally said they believe that there are benefits to peer-to-peer technology but that it will imperil national security, intrude on personal privacy and violate copyright law, if not properly restricted. Both Waxman and Rep. Paul Hodes (D-N.H.) dubbed P2P networks ongoing national security threats.

Congressional gripes about P2P networks are hardly new, and in the past, they have reinforced concerns raised by the Motion Picture Association of America and the Recording Industry Association of America. Four years ago, the same committee held a pair of hearings that condemned pornography sharing on P2P networks and also explored leaks of sensitive information. And throughout 2004, Congress considered multiple proposals that would have restricted-- or effectively banned --many popular file-swapping networks. Waxman noted that he was not seeking to ban peer-to-peer networks this time around but rather to "achieve a balance that protects sensitive government, personal and corporate information and copyright laws."

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To be sure, the kind of information leaks that alarmed politicians at Tuesday's hearing are most likely already against the law or federal policy. It is illegal for government employees to leak certain types of classified documents without approval, either electronically or through traditional paper means.

Mary Koelbel Engle, the associate director for advertising practices in the Federal Trade Commission's Bureau of Consumer Protection, said her agency has found in its studies of peer-to-peer network use that risks to sensitive information "stem largely from how individuals use the technology rather than being inherent in the technology itself."

 

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