Big Brother niche
Tiversa was founded in 2004 as a business designed to enforce copyrights for Hollywood and the music industry. Company officials quickly realized that wasn't the whole picture, said Keith Tagliaferri, Tiversa's senior vice president of operations.
"A lot more than movies and music was being shared on these file-sharing networks," he said. "One of our analysts looked and they saw spreadsheets, and another looked and they saw jihadist-training videos."
What Tiversa does might seem like Big Brother snooping -- even illegal. But the company takes only files that users have openly shared, said Jon Ramsey, chief technology officer at Dell SecureWorks, an Atlanta-based company that researches computer security threats. He said people should think of Tiversa as a Google search engine for information that people shared via peer-to-peer networks rather than over the Internet.
"Whether they know it or not," Ramsey said, computer users who install sharing software and click "accept" to questions about default settings and the user agreement could make information public. "You've lost control of it at that point."
Georgia medical company LabMD sued Tiversa in 2011, claiming the Pittsburgh firm accessed confidential medical information from its computers and then sought to do business with it to stop the data from being dispersed.
In August 2012, a federal court dismissed the lawsuit, saying LabMD did not have jurisdiction to sue Tiversa in Georgia. A federal appeals court upheld that ruling in February, and LabMD has appealed again. If LabMD loses again, the medical firm could file suit in U.S. District Court in Pittsburgh.
In an unrelated ruling that impacts computer users, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit found that a California man convicted of having child pornography on his computer had no legal expectation of privacy for anything he shared on an open file-sharing network.
The judges found the defense argument that the defendant "lacked the technical savvy or good sense" to keep his pornography files from being shared on the open network he was using was "like saying he did not know enough to close his drapes."
"As we've seen, people put in information they didn't know they were sharing, and suddenly very sensitive information is being shared," said Bob Schoshinski, assistant director of the Federal Trade Commission's Division of Privacy and Identity Protection.
File-sharing makes up about 70 percent of Internet traffic with files that may contain large amounts of data. It can be fertile ground for finding criminals because, unlike the rest of the Web, about 90 percent of users intend to break the law if only to get free music, movies and more.
In the best circumstances for people using file-sharing networks, they obtain copyrighted material for free. At the worst, criminals steal credit card numbers, pedophiles share pictures of children, and terrorists plot.
Criminals troll file-sharing programs to find people sharing personal data or they insert malicious software into files that users can download, said Will Dormann, a software vulnerability analyst at CERT, a division of Carnegie Mellon University's Software Engineering Institute.
Dartmouth College researchers tested file-sharing criminal behavior by posting an email message that contained the number for a debit card. The account was depleted within a week. Then they posted fake banking documents that looked like internal communications, and cyber thieves took those as well.
Potential victims are not limited to people using file-sharing networks either, said former cyber czar Schmidt, an adjunct distinguished fellow at Carnegie Mellon University and unpaid adviser to Tiversa.
"If I elect to take the risk of putting something either inadvertently or intentionally online about myself, that's my decision," he said. "But oftentimes we have interactions with family members, friends, co-workers, businesses that we work for. That information is not designed to be shared."
Andrew Conte is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.
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