WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A senior U.S. lawmaker said on Wednesday that it may be time for the government to regulate companies that provide online file-sharing services after a number of people managed to access FBI files, medical records and Social Security numbers.
House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Edolphus Towns said during a hearing on the safety of peer-to-peer software that he was astonished at privacy breaches involving LimeWire, operated by the Lime Group.
Using LimeWire, people have been able to access FBI files, medical records, Social Security numbers and even a file containing information about a safe house location for President Barack Obama and his family, Towns said.
“As far as I am concerned, the days of self-regulation should be over for the file-sharing industry,” Towns said. “In the last administration, the Federal Trade Commission took a see-no-evil, hear-no-evil approach to the file sharing software industry. I hope the new administration is revisiting that approach.”
Towns, a New York Democrat, said he plans to introduce legislation that would ban unsecure, open network, peer-to-peer software from all government and contractor computers and networks.
“For our sensitive government information, the risk is simply too great to ignore,” he said.
Towns said he also plans to meet with the new FTC chairman to request that the agency investigate whether inadequate safeguards on file sharing software such as LimeWire constitute an unfair trade practice. An FTC spokesman did not have an immediate comment.
He added that the Federal Communications Commission should examine the peer-to-peer industry. An FCC spokeswoman declined to comment.
Lime Wire founder and Chairman Mark Gorton defended his company, saying any inadvertent file-sharing has been fixed in the newest version of the software and steps have been installed to put the user more in control.
“Are we perfect? No,” Gorton told the committee. “We have made enormous strides in the last few years.”
“In order for a LimeWire user to change their default settings to enable document sharing, they have to click nine times and disregard three warnings,” Gorton said.
Public interest groups such as Public Knowledge said the attack on peer-to-peer is phony and misdirected. Robb Topolski, chief technology consultant for Public Knowledge, said that the update to the software is a change from previous behavior driven by criticisms that the LimeWire application shared more than the user knew or intended.
“Now, it shares nothing until sharing is specifically enabled,” he said. “LimeWire is perfectly safe.”
Robert Boback, the head of Tiversa Inc, a private online security and intelligence firm, criticized the LimeWire software, saying corporate and government documents, as well as child pornography, can be downloaded.
Boback said that documents revealing every U.S. nuclear facility were downloaded by computers in France. He said peer-to-peer software has made it dangerously easy for snoopers to unearth extremely private information — easier than rifling through someone’s trash.
“Why go dumpster diving?” Boback said.
Reporting by John Poirier, editing by Matthew Lewis and Carol Bishopric