What was once thought to be theoretically possible is no longer. The Justice Department has arrested a Seattle man charging him with using peer-to-peer software to snoop through personal computers to commit identity theft, according to an Associated Press article. Gregory Thomas Kopiloff used the peer-to-peer software LimeWire to steal personal financial information stored on individuals' computers. The Justice Department said it is the first case in which someone used peer-to-peer software to commit identity theft.
LimeWire allows users who have downloaded the software the ability to primarily share music but it can also be used to share any file on the computer. Many users are not aware of the risk that LimeWire and other peer-to-peer applications present. In a hearing this summer, Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., grilled Lime Group CEO Mark Gorton about how the peer-to-peer software, which had been downloaded onto government computers, put sensitive government information at risk of theft. Hereâ€™s a related Tech Insider post on the subject.
According to the AP, Kopiloff used LimeWire to steal identities this way:
When other users might search on LimeWire for "Madonna," Kopiloff would search for "federal tax return," or for student financial aid forms or other financial information, [assistant U.S. attorney Kathryn] Warma said. And instead of getting access to a few hundred files containing "Like a Virgin" or "Papa Don't Preach," he would get a few hundred files containing tax returns.
He would vet his victims before opening accounts in their name, ensuring they earned at least $150,000 a year and had good credit, Warma said.
In what may prove to be prescient, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., during the summer congressional hearing on peer-to-peer software, warned Gorton about lawsuits if LimeWire is proved to be used to steal identities. According to a ZDNet article:
Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., warned Gorton that LimeWire's practices may open the company up to serious legal liability.
â€œWould it surprise you if you have a string of lawsuits for inherent defect in your product if people like Charlie Mueller of Missouri finds out he's lost his IRS filings and feels he's been damaged?â€ Issa asked.
Gorton repeatedly defended his company's practices and said he wasn't aware of the extent to which national security information was being accessed through his network.
LimeWire strives to make its product easier to understand and is working on a new version even more tailored to the â€œneophyteâ€ user, Gorton said. The software incorporates a number of warnings intended to stave off inadvertent file sharing, he added. For instance, pop-up messages appear when users attempt to share folders, such as the all-encompassing â€œMy Documentsâ€ folder and the root directory, which are considered likely to contain sensitive information.
â€œA lot of the information that gets out there now is because people accidentally share directories that they wouldn't mean to share clearly," Gorton said. "Those warnings are not enough, at least in a handful of cases.â€
This may be one of those cases.