Lawmakers extend oversight to P2P

Members of Congress and the creators of file-sharing software are grappling over how to protect users of peer-to-peer (P2P) networks from inadvertently sharing files, which can pose personal and national security risks. Representatives on both sides of the aisle have demanded that industry leaders move quickly to improve safety.

In a recent incident, a Transportation Department employee inadvertently made public more than 60 government files. Dan Mintz, DOT’s chief information officer, told lawmakers that a DOT employee accidentally exposed those documents while she was working on her home computer because her teenage daughter had downloaded LimeWire, a P2P application with about 50 million users.

“These incidents illustrate the challenges we face and the need to do due diligence on all of our fronts,” Mintz said. That incident highlights the need for agencies to beef up training and auditing programs, he said.

Policy guidance for implementing the Federal Information Security Management Act requires agencies to manage P2P threats. “We have a peer-to-peer policy in place that says you are not supposed to use peer-to-peer on any computer with government information on it,” Mintz said.

But even with guidance that is almost three years old, agencies are having trouble with P2P networks, according to testimony at a July 24 hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) said his staff members’ investigation found a host of personal and government information on P2P networks, including federal emergency response plans, military operations orders and internal documents from political campaigns.

Experts testified that even experienced information technology employees often misunderstand the messages they receive from P2P networks warning them about sharing files.

Mark Gorton, LimeWire’s founder, told lawmakers his company was working to improve security, but the ultimate solution must come from Congress in the form of legislation. However, others testified that LimeWire’s security system was inadequate and that the global nature of P2P networks makes a legislative solution impossible.

Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) told Gorton he should feel guilty “for having made the laptop a dangerous weapon against the security of the United States."

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Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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