The House on Tuesday passed a bill that would mandate a policy banning the use of file sharing software on federal computers and networks, along with those used by contractors.
H.R. 4098, introduced in November, directs the Office of Management and Budget to issue rules that forbid the tools and allow agencies to seek exemptions for legitimate uses on a case-by-case basis.
The House vote -- 408 to 13 -- will bolster national security by safeguarding sensitive information, backers of the bill said. "We can no longer ignore the threat to sensitive government information, businesses and consumers that insecure peer-to-peer networks pose," said Edolphus Towns, D-N.Y., the bill's sponsor, in a statement. "Congress acted today to protect the American people by helping to prevent inadvertent security breaches on insecure networks." The bill now moves to the Senate.
Peer-to-peer file sharing allows users to instantly exchange content, typically music, video or other large documents, with other people who have the same file sharing software on their computers. If not properly configured, users can inadvertently open up their hard drives -- and all the private materials stored there -- on to the Internet for public access. In November, an internal report discussing House members' alleged ethics violations reportedly leaked out by accident through a peer-to-peer program - renewing interest in a ban.
Towns, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, first mentioned his intent to pass legislation at a July hearing on the subject. The hearing was one of several prompted by the discovery materials describing the president's helicopter on a file server in Iran. The origin of the content was traced back to a defense contractor in Bethesda, Md.
Some security specialists have said that a ban alone will have little effect in preventing the inadvertent release of sensitive information to the public. Tests to monitor break-ins and automated controls that block such applications are also needed, they claim.
Software programs such as Napster gave rise to the popularity of file sharing applications in the late 1990s. Today, federal officials estimate that up to 20 million peer-to-peer users are active at any point in time.