This detail from the report shows a BearShare setup screen. Though it appears that filesharing has been disabled for all folders by clicking on the "Deselect All" button, the program continues to surreptitiously share the Downloads folder.
Peer-to-peer networks are playing fast and loose with your personal information, according to the USPTO

File-sharing programs that "dupe" users into inadvertently sharing files could be to blame for turning our nation's children into criminals and government workers into unwitting spies. That's the gist of a just-released report from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PDF), which thoroughly documents the ways in which filesharing programs are designed to share files on users' hard drives, whether they want to or not.

The 75-page report, "Filesharing Programs and Technological Features to Induce Users to Share,” contains a foreword by Under Secretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property and USPTO Director Jon W. Dudas. Dudas said the November 2006 report was published at his request after reviewing troubling allegations from USPTO staff that the most popular file-sharing programs -- BearShare, eDonkey, Kazaa, LimeWire and Morpheus -- are all designed to encourage users to share their files, often without their knowledge or express consent.

The report is rife with examples of ways that programs fail to disclose, or willfully disguise the extent to which users are making their private files available on peer-to-peer networks. In some cases, the programs have been shown to continue sharing files and folders even after users have deliberately deactivated sharing features.

The patent office issues many ominous warnings in the report, charging that inadvertent filesharing victimizes copyright holders while making users vulnerable to lawsuits. Charging that the P2P filesharing systems "prey upon the young and the naive," the report goes on to charge that numerous features in P2P software clients "have been deployed to trick the young and the unwary into uploading infringing files that culpable, revenue-generating `leechers' could download with little risk to themselves."

The report also suggests that the practice of automatically harvesting personal data files without users' knowledge carries other, more sinister implications. "The anonymity, cheap pseudonyms, and indiscriminate sharing that make these networks an attractive venue for infringement also attracted `unstoppable' pedophiles who share violent child pornography," the report states. "Identity thieves were searching for inadvertently shared financial data (while) pedophiles were searching filesharing networks for hard-core child pornography — and for inadvertently shared data about particular children."

Finally, the USPTO document charges that unintended filesharing could endanger national security, citing a 2005 warning from the Department of Homeland Security that federal employees with filesharing programs on their home or work computers repeatedly "shared" files containing sensitive or classified data. The report notes that, "It seems highly unlikely that any of them intended to compromise national or military security for the sake of `free music.'

"A decade ago, the idea that copyright infringement could become a threat to national security would have seemed implausible. Now, it is a sad reality," Dudas wrote in the report.

While the USPTO acts in an advisory role on patent, trademark, and copyright protection issues for the executive branch and the Department of Commerce, the agency has no specific regulatory or enforcement authority in the matter.

"We can't expect users to use common sense. That would eliminate the need for all sorts of legislation, committees, oversight and lawyers." -- Christopher Jennings
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