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7/9/2008
08:37 PM
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File Sharing Exposes Supreme Court Justice's Personal Information

An employee at an investment firm shared some files using LimeWire and exposed personal data associated with some 2,000 of the firm's clients, including Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer.

An employee at Wagner Resource Group, an investment firm in McLean, Va., decided to share some files using LimeWire late last year. In so doing, he managed to expose personal information associated with some 2,000 of the firm's clients, including Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer.

The Washington Post's Brian Krebs broke the story on Wednesday, thanks to a tip from a reader of the Post's online site. According to Krebs, the employee's carelessness exposed names, dates of birth, and Social Security numbers.

LimeWire is a peer-to-peer file sharing program that uses the Gnutella protocol. Like other file sharing applications, it allows users to make computer files available to other users of the software. Unfortunately, some users do not understand how to properly configure the software.

The LimeWire FAQs suggest that LimeWire, properly configured, doesn't present any special security risk. "As long as you don't share your entire hard drive, you shouldn't encounter any significant security risks using Gnutella," the FAQs explain. "However, make sure you are sharing only files you want to share, and to be completely safe, don't run executable programs that you obtain from the Gnutella network."

Of course, the use of any such software in environments where confidential information is stored represents a security risk. And misuse, deliberate or accidental, of file sharing programs isn't a new problem.

Last month, Walter Reed Army Medical Center said that officials were "investigating the possible disclosure of personal identifier information through unauthorized sharing of a data file containing the names of approximately one thousand Military Health System beneficiaries."

And last year, file sharing software installed on the laptop of a Pfizer employee led to a data breach that exposed names, Social Security numbers, and other information associated with about 17,000 Pfizer employees and past employees. In this case, it was not the employee who installed the software but her spouse.

A bill introduced late last year aims to impose security controls, file sharing restrictions among them, on federal systems. H.R. 4791, The Federal Agency Data Protection Act, passed the House in June and awaits action by the Senate. If passed by the Senate and signed into law, it would require government agency heads to "develop and implement a plan to ensure the security and privacy of information collected or maintained by or on behalf of the agency from the risks posed by certain peer-to-peer file sharing programs."

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