Peering into Your PC
As peer-to-peer software moves into direct remote control, should you think twice about opening up your computer?
Say “peer-to-peer software” and most people think of Napster or sending instant messages. Yet software companies are increasingly looking to peer-to-peer technology as a way to help people collaborate-or just grab a file left on the home PC.
Case in point: ENC, a Carlsbad, CA-based start-up, wants to let you share your computer with anyone who has the right password and a Web browser.
The service, called eBlvd, works like this: You register your PC at the company’s Web site. Then, if there’s anyone you’d like to show a presentation to or share a file with, you can let them access your computer. Once you install the browser plug-in on your computer, you can remotely control a PC over the Internet, as you would with other remote access software such as LapLink.
Gartner Research estimates that by 2004 about 20 percent of business desktops will use peer-to-peer file sharing of one sort or another.
But all this computer glasnost might cause a little eyebrow raising. Just how open should your computer be?
“When you make a risk easier to incur, in some sense you’re making it worse,” says Kevin Jeffay, a computer science professor at the University of North Carolina. “It all comes down to how sensitive the developers are to these issues. The problems and solutions are well-known-it’s just a matter of writing the code.”
But there are ways to protect your computer. For example, you can set eBlvd up so that it only shares the directories you specify. In addition, you set the software to allow view-only access, which won’t let users get into your files or move the cursor. Full access, on the other hand, lets any user control the shared PC’s mouse and allows the user to issue keyboard commands.
Rob Batchelder, Gartner research director for Internet infrastructure, gives a few more pointers for trying out new peer-to-peer clients. “Is the software from a trusted party?” Batchelder says. “When you put it on your system, are there solid protections to protect directories and guard against uploaded viruses?”
Adds Jeffay, “you’re buying a product that will give you remote access to your machine. You have to be concerned that if you’re providing yourself access, you may be providing someone else access, and you have to trust that the company selling you the product will care about these issues. But I don’t see any new security risks in this type of product, beyond risks we’ve had for years.”
The Short Arm of the Law
On the legal front, current law doesn’t recognize the computer as a legal means of copying music files, Batchelder says. So just making a copy of music with your computer is an illicit activity that will continue to cause cold sweats for the copyright holders (and for your employer, if you’re doing this at work).
But that’s still a technicality for most MP3 addicts. “The genie is out of the bottle,” says Batchelder. “There’s no way to secure digital media. So, in the consumer space, we’re back in the Wild West.”
Wild indeed. Marv Toyer, president and CEO of eBlvd.com, says the ability to distribute data to a large audience caught the attention of some unlikely clients at the product’s launch last month.
“We got a lot of attention from adult-oriented site publishers,” says Toyer. “They were interested in using existing computers that have no Web publishing capabilities. This could be a poor man’s Web server.”
eBlvd costs $19.95 a year for personal use, primarily remote access to your PC from any computer with Internet access. eBlvd is currently offering a free demo, which requires Internet Explorer for Windows. Toyer says “the number of people that can connect is only limited by your network infrastructure and bandwidth.”
And your level of anxiety.