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FTC warns firms of widespread P2P data leaks

Confidential data from 100 firms found on peer-to-peer networks

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In what appears to be a warning shot, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has sent out letters to about 100 companies, informing them about sensitive and confidential data from their networks being found on publicly available on peer-to-peer (P2P) networks.

The letters stem from an FTC investigation during which the agency discovered numerous examples of health-related information, financial records, drivers' license and Social Security numbers and other data leaked on P2P networks, according to a statement.

The letters urged the companies to review their security practices and warned them that their failure to prevent such information from being shared on P2P networks may be in violation of laws enforced by the Commission.

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"The Commission has brought a number of cases against companies that allegedly failed to implement reasonable and appropriate security measures to protect sensitive personal information," the letter noted. It goes on to remind each of the recipients that it is their responsibility to control the use of P2P software on their networks and on those of their third-party service providers.

In addition to the letters, the FTC has also opened private investigations against an unspecified number of other companies over inadvertent data leaks involving sensitive customer and employee data.

Alain Sheer an attorney with the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection said that as part of the investigations the FTC will collect information from each company to see if they may have violated data privacy laws. Generally, such investigations are the first step towards a formal compliant being lodged against a company by the FTC, Sheer told Computerworld today.

Sheer emphasised that with the P2P investigations, all that the FTC is doing right now is seeking more information about inadvertent data leaks from some companies. The action does not automatically mean that the FTC is planning on filing a formal complaint against any company, he stressed.

The FTC's actions have been a long time coming and highlight the growing concerns over inadvertent leaks on P2P networks said Eric Johnson, a professor of operations management at Dartmouth College's Tuck School of Business.

Over the past few years, there have been numerous reported incidents of sensitive data being inadvertently leaked on P2P networks. Some of the leaks have been sensational.

Last year, Tiversa, a vendor of P2P network monitoring services, announced that it found details on safe house locations for the First Family, along with presidential motorcade routes and other sensitive data, on a P2P network.

Before that, Tiversa had announced that it had unearthed details about the president's Marine One helicopter on a server based in Iran.

Others have highlighted similar data leaks as well. Johnson alone has found numerous health care documents on P2P networks. One was a 1,718-page document containing Social Security numbers, dates of birth, insurance information, treatment codes and other health care data belonging to about 9,000 patients at a medical testing laboratory.

In 2007, personal data belonging to about 17,000 Pfizer employees was inadvertently leaked by an employee who installed unauthorized file-sharing software on a company laptop.

In most cases, the leaks have resulted from improperly configured P2P software ending up exposing the entire contents of the computer in which it is installed. Such leaks have prompted considerable concern from lawmakers and have resulted in at least two bills being introduced in Congress over the past one year.

"The FTC has been following this for a long time," Johnson said. "They have been under a reasonable amount of pressure to do something to go after companies," that have exposed sensitive data on file-sharing networks.

The part that remains unclear is what happens next, he said. "It's a little murky. If you look at what they are saying, they are sending these notification letters to firms but it doesn't seem like they are taking any direct action."


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