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26. If you get tunes by file-sharing, install a good virus scanner

By Mark Alberstat

So you want to hear that J-Lo tune but don't feel like buying the entire album. Maybe you want the latest version of Unreal Tournament but don't want to shell out the bucks for yet another game.

Your alternative is, of course, to download the tune, the album or the game from some of the millions of other like-minded people who are also prepared to break copyright laws. File sharing, sometimes known as peer-to-peer networking, has been going on for years now but beware, dangers lurk in those muddy waters (most of Muddy Waters' music is also available for downloading).

If you are thinking about using, or already do use, one of the file-sharing programs, such as LimeWire, Kazaa, Morpheus or Grokster, be prepared to read the help files and understand what the program is really doing on your machine. Such programs open your computer up to a host of security threats, such as viruses, worms, Trojan horses and spyware.

For those who want a thumbnail sketch of how these programs work, think of each computer as a server. By putting information - be that songs, files or programs - on your machine, you are allowing other machines on the network to see these files and download them if they so choose.

Like any server, there are security protocols and specified areas that are open to users. But once that door is open, you never know what might escape or enter.

One of the most common additions these programs bring to your PC is spyware. These small, hidden programs watch your online browsing and sends data back to a server. This info can then be used for a variety of purposes.

Like a server, the file-sharing programs are often always on, whether or not you are actively downloading any programs or songs. Hiding in the background, these programs are giving other users constant access to your machine and even your IP address.

If you are at all computer security conscious, it is recommended that you only have these programs running when you are actively using them and always in conjunction with an up-to-date virus scanner.

The popular programs, such as McAfee and Symantec, are both great at stopping viruses and worms in their tracks.

It is also recommended that you learn how to use the program well and make absolutely sure that you know what files and folders you are sharing with the rest of the world. The settings for this are often found under menu items called Settings or Preferences.

Another good practice is to run a spyware removal program every few weeks just to rid your machine of anything you may have unwittingly downloaded.

With these caveats in mind, file-sharing and swapping can be a relatively safe way for you to expand your music horizons or test out some software before you buy the latest version.

The Mousepad runs every two weeks. It's a service of Chebucto Community Net, a community-owned Internet provider. If you have a question about computing, email If we use your question in a column, we'll send you a free mousepad.


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Originally published 18 January 2004


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