P2P's Unintended Leaks

Or, how file-hungry music and video fans might download business-sensitive data



A lover of musical comedy goes on her favorite peer-to-peer network, looking for MPEG files from "The Music Man." She types "Wells Fargo" -- and comes up with a customer list from one of the country's largest banks.

No, this particular example didn't really happen. But according to a newly-published study from researchers at Dartmouth University, many banks -- and other corporations -- are in danger of losing data in scenarios just like it.

In a paper presented yesterday at the Workshop on the Economics of Information Security conference, researchers Eric Johnson and Scott Dynes discussed their findings on the accidental disclosure of corporate documents via P2P networks. If you haven't shut down the use of P2P in your enterprise, this study might put you over the edge.

Using a P2P monitoring tool from a company called Tiversa, the researchers drilled into search results on P2P file sharing networks, looking for files relating to the top 30 U.S. banks. The goal of the research was to discover not only direct P2P searches for sensitive bank files -- such as might be conducted by computer criminals -- but also searches that contained a similar "digital footprint" and might result in an unwitting user accessing a sensitive corporate file by mistake.

Over the course of seven weeks, the researchers collected more than 437,800 file searches and narrowed them down to nearly 16,000 that might fit one of the 30 banks. At the same time, they also conducted their own searches for business-related files, collecting some 114,000 files that might relate to the banks. The combined data was winnowed down to about 12,700 documents, which represents about one week's results discovered on P2P networks.

Through a largely manual analysis, the researchers found 1,708 documents containing sensitive bank information in that single week. Most of the documents were not exposed through internal bank systems (11 percent), but through unprotected systems belonging to customers (79 percent) or suppliers (10 percent).

Most of the documents appeared to be exposed via home machines that were used for both business and personal computing, the researchers said. Such devices typically are not subject to the P2P controls exerted by corporate IT departments.

About half (49 percent) of the sensitive files discovered by the researchers contained personally identifiable information. "Many of these documents contained enough information to easily commit fraud or identity theft," they said.

In addition, the researchers found a wide range of other sensitive documents, including employee resumes and performance reviews, proposals and contracts from suppliers, IT documentation, and "many sensitive customer documents."

"For one bank, we found a spreadsheet with 23,000 business accounts -- including their contact names and addresses, account numbers, company positions, and relationship managers at the bank," the study says. "Clearly, such a data trove would be very useful for a competing bank, not to mention the fraud potential."

The Dartmouth research is one of several recent reports that indict P2P for exposing sensitive information. On May 21, the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) published a report from its Office of International Relations which blames P2P for causing the inadvertent disclosure of business and government-related documents.

"Government employees or contractors who had installed file-sharing programs on their home or work computers... repeatedly compromised national and military security by sharing files containing sensitive or classified data," the USPTO report says. "There will almost never be a legitimate business or governmental justification for employee use of file-sharing programs."

Businesses can attack the P2P problem not only by outlawing its use in the workplace, but by reworking their file naming conventions to make it less likely that outsiders will stumble upon sensitive files, either accidentally on purpose, the Dartmouth researchers say. Companies should also make clear policies about using business files on home machines, they advise.

The Dartmouth researchers also recommend regular P2P monitoring, setting baselines for P2P leakage. In their one-week analysis, the researchers found that the best banks leaked an average of less than 0.5 documents per 1,000 employees.

"Of course, document sensitivity must likewise be considered," the report says. "It is important to realize that even a single high-sensitivity document can be very damaging."

— Tim Wilson, Site Editor, Dark Reading

  • Tiversa Inc. Tim Wilson is Editor in Chief and co-founder of Dark Reading.com, UBM Tech's online community for information security professionals. He is responsible for managing the site, assigning and editing content, and writing breaking news stories. Wilson has been recognized as one ... View Full Bio

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