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Gnutella leaves foolish people open to fraud

It's foolproof but not idiot-proof

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The free file-sharing program Gnutella may be leaving daft people open to fraud through use of their cookies. The program - a wider and uncontrollable form of Napster - enables files of any type to be up and downloaded over the Internet.

Previous press reports of the open-source program have concentrated on its ability to share illegal files (eg. child porn and pirated music) without control, although Gnutella points out that it is not anonymous and IP addresses are readily available. However, as a reader pointed out to us yesterday, people are opening too much of their hard disks to the program, with heavy security and fraud consequences.

A prime example is the huge number of cookies available on Gnutella. While the vast majority of cookies are worthless, an increasing number of Web sites download cookies on your PC to provide a personalised experience. In some cases - Amazon is obviously a prime example - a cookie is also used as a password into a site and you can then order goods without having to remember further log-ins.

The theory runs that if you got hold of someone's cookie, you could use it yourself to gain access to sites under a different name and buy goods on that person's credit card. Credit card details are unlikely to be compromised due to internal Web site security. However, since people tend to reuse the same password on multiple sites, a harmless cookie could enable someone to enter more important sites.

There is also the risk that if people aren't careful what areas of their PC they make available to Gnutella (or if they save confidential files in the wrong place), important and/or sensitive information could be accidentally sent into cyberspace. Admittedly, you'd have to be pretty daft, but then a lot of people are. And if Napster goes ahead with its subscription plan, you can bet Gnutella use will rocket. It is therefore very important that people get the message - much in the same way that everyone now knows not to send credit card information in an unencrypted email.

We decided to try out the theory but after nearly a day of downloading different Gnutella clients and cookies (there are plenty of them, mind), we've got nowhere. That's not to say that a determined and more technically proficient person won't be able to though. ®

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