THE ROAD LESS TRAVELED: File Swappers Find Security in Waste
By Erin Sherbert and Dan Goodin
Over the past two decades, the popularity of gated communities has soared as suburban dwellers sought refuge from criminals, speeding cars and next-door neighbors who stored junky boats and RVs in the side yard. That phenomenon is spreading to file sharing.
Worried about the recording industry's monitoring of Kazaa and other larger peer-to-peer networks, many file sharers are turning to Waste, a program that lets them securely swap music and videos in groups of small, trusted members
The software verifies a person's identity using what's called public key cryptography, the same technology spies and government spooks have relied on for years. It also wraps instant messages and downloads in a cryptographic envelope, making it practically impossible for outsiders to eavesdrop or figure out what kind of files are being transmitted.
Similar to the walls and guard houses in the upscale gated communities all over the U.S., Waste's security features appeal to file sharers who worry they might be the next to be sued for copyright infringement.
"I like it because of the security," said Kurt Makiewicz, a college student in Michigan. With Waste, "it's hard for people to see what you are transferring."
Waste also makes packets -- the bite-sized parcels data files are broken up into when they travel over the Net -- a uniform size, preventing universities and Internet service providers from detecting users who are trading music.
The software, created by the same wunderkind-cum-rebel that spawned the Winamp jukebox and the Gnutella peer-to-peer program, is the latest evolution in file swapping. The Recording Industry Association of America, once content suing only the networks that made music downloading possible, set it sites on individuals in September. To date it has sued thousands of people it accuses of illegally making copyrighted songs available online.
The legal assault has pushed people who once swapped music in open bazaars into exclusive private communities.
"I like the idea of encryption and private networks," said a 44-year-old user from Melbourne, Australia, who goes by the nick name Multi.
Users tend to be a low-profile gang that's selective about who they admit to their file-sharing lair, known as a mesh in Waste parlance. Often members know each other from previous networks such as Napster or Morpheus. Others meet on Web sites that let them exchange the cryptographic keys needed to connect to a network.
Another draw of Waste: the ability for to create clubs where members share the same obscure interest.
As a fan of decade-old Saturday morning cartoons, Nate, a Waste user from Washington who didn't want to give his last name, said it was hard to find animation files on larger networks and when he did they were often incomplete.
But on his Waste mesh, Nate says, he's been able to find copies of rare Spiderman shows. Users on the larger networks either don't have the same kind if hard-to-find cartoons, or they don't stay online long enough for others to download the large files.
"Waste is more reliable," he says.
Waste is the brain child of Justin Frankel, creator of the Winamp program for playing music on PCs. Winamp, installed more than 320 million times in the past seven years, impressed America Online enough that in 1999 it paid a reported $100 million for Frankel's company, San Francisco-based Nullsoft.
A year later, Frankel ran into trouble with his new employer when he released Gnutella, a program for sharing files. Unlike Napster, which the recording industry was in the process of shutting down, Gnutella didn't rely on a central server, making it far less vulnerable to legal challenges. AOL, now owned by Time Warner, responded by pulling Gnutella off Nullsoft's Web site.
Last May Frankel incurred Time Warner's wrath again when he posted Waste to his Web site. The company ordered that the software be pulled a day later, but by then other Web sites were offering the wares. Today programmers from organizations such as Sourceforge, a group that collaborates on open source projects, is busy creating updates.
So far programmers at Sourceforge are fixing bugs and adding minor enhancements, such as color-coding nick names so each one is more distinctive. Eventually, they plan to make Waste easier to use for the average non-technical person and to reengineer the program to work with larger numbers of users. They'd also like to see Waste code translated so it will run well on Macintosh and Linux computers. Right now it only runs on Windows machines.
Waste becomes sluggish once a mesh grows much beyond 50 people, a much bigger limitation than programs like Kazaa, which tend to coral its millions of users into groups of 350 or so. As a result, members usually pull down most of the content they want within a couple weeks, then the group either dies or morphs into a place where members socialize via Waste's instant messaging feature.
Waste's members-only character presents challenges that don't exist with larger networks. Whereas Kazaa welcomes anyone and randomly groups members together, Waste requires that a user be invited to a mesh. Once someone becomes a member there's no way of banishing the person.
"If this is a private party and we're having fun, how do we make sure we start inviting the right people?" said, a 47 year old Waste user from Western Connecticut who goes by the pseudonym Jack Spratts. "If you let someone in who's bad for your health, you can not get rid of them."
Though many file swappers say they feel safer using Waste, the fear of getting caught in the web of copyright infringement lawsuits still lingers. The program, they say, is too quick to reveal users' IP addresses, the unique numerical listings the RIAA uses to go after suspected file sharers.
Spratts has woken up some mornings to find that his mesh of a handful of members he has known for months is suddenly populated with dozens of users he's never heard of, threatening the sense of security that came with being in a small community of people he knew. His only alternative was to leave the mesh and start a new one.
"That is a problem that has not been solved, and it's destroyed more meshes than anything else," said Spratts, who belongs to about 14 groups at the moment. Groups are usually organized by users' particular interests, be they an affection for 1970s punk rock, left-leaning politics or film noir.
"Waste was invented to provide a level of security that was unheard of the peer-to-peer file sharing," Spratts said. "It's its greatest strength and its greatest weakness, because it can lead to anarchy."