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Covering tracks: New privacy hope for P2P

Programmers seek the path to anonymous file-swapping, hoping to evade RIAA lawsuits.

Jason Rohrer was battling an insect invasion last year when he hit on an idea that he hoped would help file swappers hide from the copyright police.

As ants marched with impunity through the Santa Cruz, Calif., home of the programmer, frustration turned to inspiration and Mute was born. The program, which seeks to hide the source of downloads by passing files between computers along twisting pathways, is gaining attention as an interesting solution to file swapping's hottest problem: privacy.


What's new:
As the Recording Industry of Association of America (RIAA) sues over 1,000 individual file-swappers, peer-to-peer software developers are trying new ways to cover their customers' tracks.

Bottom line:
The added privacy can mean a longer download time for music. And though customers have been willing to wait, the RIAA and companies that track file swappers say don't get your hopes up--we can still find you.

More stories on this topic

"If you're going to be anonymous, you can not use direct connections," Rohrer said.

Rohrer isn't alone in developing peer-to-peer privacy tools. In the past six months, the quest for anonymity on file-swapping networks has become the equivalent of a technological holy grail, thanks to a wave of lawsuits filed against individual file swappers by the Recording Industry Association of America.

So far, the RIAA, tracing digital fingerprints back to individual names, has sued almost 1,500 people it claims stole music over file-swapping networks.

Peer-to-peer network developers have been working on improving privacy ever since Napster was first targeted by a skittish record industry, but the results have been decidedly imperfect.

That's because most peer-to-peer systems require some degree of openness to work at all. In order to download a song from another computer online, a file swapper's computer must make some kind of connection to it. That leaves a digital record that can be traced back to a person's Internet service provider, and from there to the account holder.

At the very least, adding anonymity to peer-to-peer systems involves a trade-off in efficiency, creating performance headaches that bring a network to its knees. Some security experts go further, arguing that privacy is impossible to achieve in a peer-to-peer network, given that the technology requires creating direct connections between computers.

"The bottom line is that you just can't be anonymous on the Internet if you're going to have some kind of peer transaction," said Mark Ishikawa, chief executive officer of BayTSP, a company that tracks and identifies file swappers for music labels and Hollywood studios. "There is this myth that you can be anonymous. You can hide, but we can get you."

Proxies, keys and privacy
Most of the newest generation of file-swapping hopefuls use some kind of encryption, scrambling files so that they become impenetrable strings of data as they are transferred online. This helps keep out some prying eyes, but most monitoring services, such as BayTSP, simply pretend to be an ordinary file-swapper, searching and downloading files instead of trying to break into the network from outside. No matter how powerful the encryption in the network, that digital handshake is required, Net experts say.

Many of the services are also moving toward Internet "proxies" as a way to mask identities. Under this model, the direct handshake between uploaders and downloaders is interrupted by a digital middleman. Instead of being downloaded directly, a file is handed off to another Web server, or passed through another set of computers, before finding its way to the downloader.

The , as well as the smaller Earthstation V software , allow their users to connect to these online proxy servers, send search requests and upload and download through them.

Rohrer's Mute is a more extreme version of this proxy idea, in which every computer on the file-swapping network becomes a middleman, passing on search queries and actual files that are on their way elsewhere in the network. This makes it nearly impossible to determine who is uploading or downloading what information?-but the model has a cost.

Ordinary file-swapping networks work quickly, because only small bits of information?-search queries and background data--are relayed between most of the computers. In Mute's model, each computer potentially serves as a courier for vastly larger multimedia files. That can quickly clog people's Net connections, slowing or stalling the network altogether.

Rohrer says this is the natural trade-off between speed and perfect anonymity. What has been surprising is how many people have been willing to use the network even though it takes as much as an hour to download a song, he said. At last count, his software had been downloaded nearly 80,000 times, according to his host site.

"People seem to be willing to deal with it given the privacy issues involved," Rohrer said.

Spanish developer Pablo Soto, whose Blubster and Piolet software have attracted several hundred thousand users, is taking a decidedly different tack. While including strong encryption and some privacy-enhancing features in a new version of the software expected to be released in the next few weeks, he's also changing the way files are downloaded.

Information such as an MP3 song will still be downloaded from its original source, he said. But a song will be scrambled, and downloaded simply as raw, unintelligible data. This means that no actual copy of a song is being exchanged, he contends.

If downloaders want to turn that data into useable music, their software must seek elsewhere on the file-swapping network for the encryption "keys" that will unlock the data, transforming it back into an MP3. Separating the download of the data and the keys may help protect file sharers from lawsuits, making it more difficult for courts to say exactly which party is responsible for copyright infringement, Soto said.

"Our developments have always been a result of feature requests," Soto said in an instant message interview. "We are lately getting from our users hundreds of requests and ideas to enhance privacy, so it looked like the natural step to take, development-wise. If users want decentralized networks, there we go. If users want anonymity, there we go."

The RIAA remains as unimpressed by the latest generation of privacy seekers as with the rest. File swapping is file swapping, no matter how programmers change the way their networks function, the group's attorneys have argued in court. Moreover, the RIAA has already sued people who had used Blubster and other privacy-focused networks before, investigators note.

"File sharers need to take these types of claims with a grain of salt," an RIAA representative said. "Copyright owners can enforce their rights on these types of networks. Our investigators are well-versed in what these technologies do and how they work."