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Consider the dangers of file sharing

OFFUTT AIR FORCE BASE, Neb. -- Most of us are familiar with online file sharing programs such as Limewire, Kazaa, BitTorrent and Napster. These programs, also known as "peer-to-peer" or "P2P" programs, allow users from around the world - complete strangers most of the time - to share files on their personal computers. Most people mistakenly believe that these programs are easy ways to get free music, games and video downloads. However, while no one has to pay to use these shared programs, they may come at a very high cost. 

The risks of file sharing range from simply compromising one's integrity to federal prosecution and extensive jail time. Is participating in file sharing worth the risk? Consider the following facts before you choose to share your computer with millions. 

At the very least, file sharing programs present a significant risk of damaging your computer through the accidental download of computer viruses. "Hackers" and other computer users with malicious intentions frequently disguise viruses, spyware or other damaging programs and make them available for download by potential victims. Once downloaded, such viruses and spyware can cause great damage to your computer. Viruses are formulated to slow processing times and disable computers. Spyware is designed to extract personal information from computers for malicious use, including identity theft. 

Unfortunately, file sharing sites don't test files for malicious content such as viruses or spyware - they only match users who want to share the same files. With over 222,000 known viruses on the internet, is opening your computer to file sharing worth the risk? 

With file sharing, people may illegally download copyrighted music, videos or other materials. Let's face it, many people use file sharing programs for the sole purpose of doing this. However, the fact remains that downloading copyrighted materials without paying for them is a violation of federal law for which you could be prosecuted. Many of us have seen the Federal Bureau of Investigation's warning at the beginning of a movie - unauthorized reproduction of copyrighted material is a violation of Title 17, United States Code, Sections 501 and 506. This warning also applies to music, videos and images on file sharing programs. The maximum criminal penalty for a violation is five years in jail and $250,000 in fines. There could also be civil penalties for this behavior. 

Would you risk your freedom to download a few songs or movies? 

Lawsuits involving copyright violations on file sharing networks have occurred often in the past 10 years. For example, recently a Boston University student who downloaded more than 800 songs on a file sharing network was sued by some record labels, a jury found him guilty of violating copyright laws, and he was ordered to pay $675,000 in damages and restitution to the record companies. Surprisingly, the suit involved only 30 of the 800 songs he illegally downloaded. 

I'm sure that student wishes he had just paid the money to legally purchase those songs. Even if you never get caught, as a military member you are held to a higher code of conduct and you shouldn't engage in criminal misconduct. Doing so violates our core value of "Integrity First." Downloading copyrighted material illegally exposes you to lawsuits that may involve huge monetary penalties. Can you afford to take the risk? 

Finally, the most troubling thing with file sharing is the potential to download files that by their very nature are illegal to possess, like child pornography. Court cases involving possession and distribution of child pornography are becoming commonplace both in and out of the military. Child pornography has made a rapid proliferation into file sharing programs. The internet and these programs have made it easy to find pornography for those who are seeking it, and have increased the likelihood that it might be found accidentally by someone who isn't. If you find pornography accidentally, you might fall into the trap of looking at it, just out of curiosity or in a moment of weakness. At that point you have been fully engulfed by the trap, and you will find it extremely difficult to escape without serious and permanent effects. 

If convicted of possession of child pornography, you will most likely serve lengthy jail time, have to register as a sex offender and witness the end of your Air Force career. 

I have recently seen the sad effects such carelessness with the internet has caused to young Airmen. These young people seemed to be decent individuals at heart, good workers and law abiding citizens - up until the time they started looking for pornography on file sharing programs. The opportunity was there; right in front of them, and pornography - legal and illegal was easily obtainable. In moments of weakness all they had to do was turn to their computers and click the mouse a few times, and they possessed illegal, offensive and harmful material. 

By downloading this material, they not only destroyed their future, but have committed a crime that re-victimizes the children involved each time the images are viewed. 

In my experience, the risks of using file sharing programs far outweigh the possible benefits. Whatever you choose to do, be extremely careful around these programs, and carefully assess the risks before you fall into a trap.