safety on the web

My most recent ‘sick’ machine came in to be examined right before the holidays.  What a joyous season, one of eating, giving thanks, and looking forward to the birth of The King.  This season found a family with a machine that would not boot, the BSOD (blue screen of death), and concerns that something caused this – namely, the download / playing of free games.

I’ve got to confess, I have a free game player here in my home, and some of the adware I find on that machine is annoying.  But we haven’t had the machine die because of it.  So, with my curiosity meter pegged, I started to troubleshoot.

Once I cleaned up some errors on the hard drive (by removing it, slaving it into my laptop using a nifty device that turns it into a USB accessible device – Sabrent USB-DSC5 Serial ATA or IDE 2.5-/3.5-Inch to USB 2.0 Cable Converter Adapter with Power Supply) the machine would boot into Windows XP.  Then, it’s off to update and run some of my favorite free tools that I have touted in an earlier post.

Hello – what’s this?  15 virus alerts, numerous spy, ad and malware alerts.  The culprit?  A P2P (peer-to-peer) file sharing program.  Now, before I get to busting on P2P networks, I want you to understand that these are not evil, and actually they are good!  Used for specific purposes, they are very necessary and useful.  But my guess is the lure of ‘free’ stuff (music, movies, games, etc.) was the use in this instance.  And while P2P in itself is not evil or illegal, it often is used for exactly those things that are (making music available for free downloads, games, software, movies, pornography, etc.).  And while we’re being honest, we need to be up front in saying that many of the users of these networks may not be the most noble intentioned folks on the planet.

The software that was installed on this computer was Limewire.  For a good look at the settings you may want to use if you choose to use this software, review the article LimeWire – More Things You Need to Know (previously titled LimeWire Users – Read This to Avoid Danger) written by Pascal-Denis Lussier.  Again, I’m positive the person in the family that used this was not meaning any harm – I believe they wanted some free song or music.  But what happens in the P2P world is that you open your machine up for all kinds of information theft and malware attacks.

If I could convince adults to read a single article on this (preferably other than this one), it would be P2P Networking – Kids Know! Do Mom and Dad? by Jerry Ropelato.  That is what started me writing this post!  Since I have a child, a family, and operate my own computer network at home, I make sure I stay as up to date as possible with changes in the technology and industry.  But I also make it a point to talk to my family (and through my readers here) about issues.  P2P is one you need to have awareness of.  Why?


It does not take someone much time or effort to put in spurious code into a file that could reek havoc on your computer or the network it is on.  My standard preaching in this area is have a virus protection software package installed on your computer and keep it updated with the current definition files.  New viruses are created and unleashed every day – don’t neglect this important aspect of computing, no matter what your platform is.

Once you have the software installed, use it!  If you have downloaded something using a P2P program, take the time to go to the downloaded file and scan it with your virus program – don’t assume that this was done automagically!

Malware / Spyware / Adware

While you may think you’re getting something for nothing, more often than not you are getting more than you bargained for.  Many of the files shared have been altered to give you gifts that keep on giving!  Is it really worth all the extra gifts?

Immoral / Illegal use

Here is where the proverbial rubber meets the road.  Is it worth breaking the law to get that song / movie you don’t have?  If that song / movie is so important, don’t you think supporting the group or people that took the time to write, act, sing, produce it is the right thing to do?  Why not purchase it instead?

You see – times have changed.  I’m old enough to remember when ‘those magazines’ were behind the counter of the local store and wrapped in a brown wrapper.  Now, those same images are very accessible on the web.  And if that is your cup of tea, more than likely you know that you can find much more than still images using any P2P network.  The same goes with music – we’ve moved on from the days of purchasing a 45rpm for singles or 33-1/3rmp for the full album!  Why should I pay for this when I can get it for free?  After all, all my friends are doing it…

If It’s Free, It’s For ME!

I’m not going to give you a story of starving artists, because many are living quite comfortably.  But doing the wrong thing is not right – so no excuses allowed.  If you find the software useful (in the shareware world), pay for it.  If you like the song, pay for it.  It’s simple!  But trying to find other ways to get these items can (and often does) lead to troubles for your machine.  Read the EULA of the software, realize the FBI Warning Screen before movies is there for a reason, and recording artists have copyright warnings on what they produce for a good reason (see this 2005 article on Kazza).

To conclude, this article is just food for thought.  The family member that I’ve written about is not fictional, and the machine issues they experienced were real.  And I’m certain they had no ill intentions, just wanted some tunes.  But there was a price to pay.  And I can’t tell you (or them) the extent of potential risk they were at or what files may have been accessed due to the use of this P2P software.  The issue is the users on the network of file sharing, not file sharing itself.  And that should give all of us enough to think about – who do you want rootin’ around in your computer files?

Have other insight or comments?  Feel free to leave them here, and thanks for reading.