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Secret networks protect music swappers

By Powell Fraser

Programmer Justin Frankel designed Waste, a popular private file sharing network.
Programmer Justin Frankel designed Waste, a popular private file sharing network.

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The music industry is threatening to sue hundreds of people who illegally share music files online. CNN's Jen Rogers reports.
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Waste is a private file sharing network program released in May of this year by Nullsoft, a division of CNN's parent company AOL Time Warner.

But a day after Waste was released, AOL retracted the program, replacing the download page with a demand that all downloaded copies be deleted. Nullsoft said the release was not authorized by the company.

The source code, however, had already been adopted by the SourceForge, a free hosting service that helps coordinate open-source software projects. There, it caught the fancy of developers such as Jordan Urie and Chris Dennett, part of an eight-man team of volunteer programmers now committed to popularizing Waste.

While Urie said Waste's primary function is secure text communication, he admits the program could be used by music pirates, criminals, or even those trading in child pornography.

"But it can also be a safe haven for corporate whistle blowers or people living in countries with oppressive regimes," Urie said. "It's a safe haven for anyone who doesn't want to be observed, tracked, or have anybody knowing what they're doing."

(CNN) -- They are the country clubs of the file-sharing world, exclusive Internet networks that require knowing the right people and having a wealth of content on your hard disk to get into the clique.

These private file-swapping networks have surfaced just as the music industry has been granted dozens of subpoenas seeking the names of those who trade copyrighted material on popular services such as Kazaa, Imesh, and Gnutella.

The private networks are open to smaller groups of perhaps 20 to 30 people who liberally share music, television shows, movies and computer programs. Members of such networks believe they can avoid legal consequences because their identities and actions are masked with the same technology used to protect online credit card transactions.

"You've got the right set of early adopters, people that are involved in the community who are evangelizing it," said Travis Kalanick, whose MP3 search engine Scour was sued and shut down by the music industry. "It's going to be there if and when there is a mass exodus from networks like Kazaa and Gnutella."

How secure are they?

Kalanick and others say the private networks are the future of online music swapping.

Not if the music industry can help it, said Jonathan Lamy, a spokesman for the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA).

While he would not reveal specifics of which services would be targeted, Lamy offered a warning for private network users.

"If users think that any particular service guarantees their anonymity, they're wrong," he said. "There are ways to determine a user's identity."

But Jim Lowrey, an expert in network encryption, said it would be difficult for outsiders to break through the encryption to see who is using the private sharing services.

"You'll know they're talking, but you won't know what they're saying. It's quite impossible to crack the algorithms," said Lowrey, whose company, Endeavors Technology, is designing a file-sharing system for corporate clients.

Popular, but mired with problems

The rise of one of the private networks earlier this year shows how eager people are to trade media files online and to do so with impunity.

When wildly-popular Napster was ruled illegal by a judge in 2001, users flocked to other public file-sharing services. However, those services are mired with problems.

Aside from the threats of lawsuits from the music industry, groups such as MediaDefender have begun flooding Kazaa and Gnutella with "spoofed" files, which claim to be songs but turn out to be blank or filled with anti-piracy messages.

Users of Kazaa and Gnutella also are stymied by others in the network who choose not to share the files in their collection. A study done by the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center in August 2000 concluded that 70 percent of Gnutella users engaged only in downloading, providing no files of their own for their peers on the network.

Getting in

Private networks such as Waste, DirectConnect, and even basic chat clients promise to remedy all these issues. The difficulty is finding them.

Some message boards help users find each other and set up networks. Others turn to chat rooms or recruit friends on college campuses to form a network.

And even when a user finally charms his way into getting an encryption key, giving him access to a network such as Waste, other members' identities are not revealed until they also decide they trust the newcomer, Kalanick explained.

"You essentially will have to 'socialize' your way into a network," Kalanick said.

Kalanick said the extreme focus on security is meant to keep outsiders -- and copyright lawyers -- out.

"RIAA may be better off penetrating al Qaeda," he said.

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