Jim Carrico on Tue, 16 Mar 2004 01:56:36 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> OpenP2P.com: Next-Generation File Sharing with Social Networks

>From Rob Kaye, freelance "Mayhem and Chaos Coordinator" and ubergeek
behind the Musicbrainz database. (Those pie recipes sound pretty tasty ;-)


  by Robert Kaye

Editor's note: At the recent O'Reilly Emerging Technology Conference in
San Diego, CA, Robert Kaye lead a talk on Next Generation File Sharing
with Social Software. For those who were able to attend, this essay builds
upon that session. And if you missed the talk all together, you can now
get up to speed.

Open file sharing systems like Kazaa welcome everyone on the net and enjoy
a broad selection of content. The selection is so vast that Cory Doctorow
calls it "The largest library ever created." (Personally, I'd call it the
"largest and messiest library ever created," but that is another essay
entirely.) However, this vast selection comes with a significant risk
attached -- outsider attackers who want to stop you from sharing files and
would like to throw you in jail or pilfer your college fund.

The natural reaction is to run away and hide from the bad guys and play in
your own sandbox that the bad guys cannot even see. Due to the recent
massive lawsuit waves from the bad guys, there is more talk than ever
about Darknets, which are networks that hide themselves and their members
from public view.

Combining file sharing applications with social networks enables people to
create a trusted network of their friends to keep out the bad guys.  The
definition of bad guys is up to the user to determine -- in a lot of
cases, the bad guys would be the lovely folks slinging lawsuits. But these
networks can easily be used for legitimate non-infringing uses, such as
sharing personal information with a network of friends while keeping it
out of reach of marketers and identity thieves.

Social networks designed for file sharing should focus on three goals:  
share your files with others in your network, discover new files from
other members, and protect the network from outside attackers. To achieve
these goals, the social network needs to be founded on a well-defined
social model.

Social Models

To find social models that can be employed for these next generation
networks, we can look toward human evolution. Jared Diamond's perspective
on human evolution, as told in Guns, Germs and Steel, points out that
humans first formed hunter-gatherer tribes in order to share the burden of
food production. As tribes grew in size, they combined to create
chiefdoms, and from there they created states like those in which we live

To apply this concept, the network starts with a group of trusted people
forming a tribe of people. Starting a tribe as a friendnet, where each
connection is backed up by a meatspace connection, is an excellent
starting point. However, sharing files inside of a small tribe is only
interesting for a short while because it presents a limited search
horizon. If tribes connect with other tribes to form chiefdoms, the search
horizon expands with each new connection in the chiefdom. Finally, connect
chiefdoms to other chiefdoms to form states, and the search horizon may
start to look similar to the search horizons in open file-trading systems.

Each tribe should carefully select tribal elders who will set the tone of
the network and determine social policies for the network. The elders
should be aware of the tribal members and their strengths and weaknesses
in order to set policies that are effective for the group.  The elders
should focus the tribe on its primary goals and continually evaluate the
state of the tribe to ensure that its members are well educated on the
tribal policies.

Tribal elders must be aware that outside attackers can use social attacks
on the network. For instance, if a number of members of a movie-swapping
tribe are hanging out at their local coffee shop, they should be aware
that attackers may appear as smooth-talkers with lots of knowledge about
movies and claims of having a large collection of relevant movies.  If one
tribal member falls for the attack and invites the attacker into the
network, the entire network is at risk. We'll go into the risks from
attacks in more detail later, but tribal elders need to understand these
risks and educate their tribe to act accordingly.

The tribal elders are the guardians of the network who should use their
awareness of the network and its members to continually reevaluate the
relationships between members and other tribes. These elders should select
or design the appropriate social policies for their tribes and oversee
privileges of their members as members establish (or destroy)  their

Social Policies

Social policies dictate who can be invited to the network; how must the
reputation of a potential member be verified, if at all? What other tribes
can this tribe link to and trade with? Is it OK for the tribe to end their
questions in prepositions? What structure is appropriate for the tribe? A
loose collaboration or a rank-and-file hierarchy?

All of these questions will influence the social policies of the network,
and unlike open file-trading systems, care must be exercised when creating
and expanding networks that are designed to keep out attackers. The social
policies of these networks have a direct impact on the security of the
network. A loose network with few rules and lax reputation verification is
more susceptible to compromise. A tight network with many access controls
will be more secure, but it will have more restricted search horizons. The
key for the tribal elders is to pick a set of policies that balances
security with the utility of the network.

The social policies also determine what sort of social network will be
created. Loose connection policies will yield more chaotic systems that
look like Friendster, and more refined policies will yield systems that
resemble systems like LinkedIn. Social policies will need to address the
most pressing social issues before they arise. For instance, Friendster
should have anticipated Fakester accounts and set a policy for these
accounts before it ever opened its doors. Changing terms of service and
social policies radically after a network has been formed only serves to
alienate its users.

Search Horizons

One of the drawbacks to using a social network to enable file sharing is
that the search horizons will be more limited in comparison to
Kazaa/Napster/et al. There will be fewer people in the network and you
will not have terabytes upon terabytes of data. Is having the world's
largest, messiest and duplicated library going to help you discover new
items of interest?

Not likely -- I think that file sharing through social networks enables
users to explore their strong and weak ties. Random connections in P2P
networks are not even weak ties -- they are random ties. Exploring the
weak ties in your network is likely to give you access to more relevant
information/content than a random tie. People tend to associate with
friends with whom they share some common bond, and this common bond is
likely going to result in some shared tastes.

Perhaps these social networks can influence some change and shift users
away from a "I'm looking for this track!" mentality to a "What are my
friends listening to?" mentality. Napster exemplified this focus on
quantity; it is time to consider quality above quantity and use the
network for discovery as well as sharing.

Architecture: Central Server

At the heart of this system lies a central server that implements the
social network features. This server would implement a generic social
network system via web services that could be used to create open social
networks like Friendster, or Darknet applications like underground
apple-pie recipe trading. This central server would be used for
identification, authentication, availability, and network relationships of
users. The server should not know what the social network is being used
for -- a legitimate application should look exactly the same as an
infringing application to the outside world.

P2P advocates will be quick to point out that a central server is a weak
link in the system -- both from a technical and an outside attacker
perspective. Granted, the server is a central point of failure, but so
far, algorithms that implement a distributed web-of-trust have not come of
age. As far as I can see, there isn't a solid solution for implementing a
distributed social network that is resistant to outside attacks -- yet.

 From a legal attackers perspective, the central server presents no useful
information. Should a server be compromised, the legal attacker would find
no proof that any illegal activities were happening. In fact, the central
server should contain no incriminating or otherwise useful information
about the social network. The most useful thing gleaned from the central
server would be the IP addresses of other members of the network -- that's

This approach has two other benefits: legal attackers cannot use direct or
vicarious infringement attacks on the server, since the server cannot know
if the networks are used for infringing uses. Also, the central server
solves the pesky P2P bootstrapping problem of finding the network to join.
Here the central server will be able to give clients the IP addresses of
other members who are currently online.

Architecture:  P2P Client

To build a P2P client for this network, an existing client could be
employed or a new one could be developed. All of the learning from P2P
research in the last few years could be applied to creating a high-tech
client that uses best-of-class software like BitTorrent and Kademlia.  
Given how many good P2P systems are floating about the world today, it is
clear that this is not a difficult problem.

The P2P client could employ a Gnutella-like query-routing protocol or use
external identifiers like Bitzi's Bitprints, MusicBrainz identifiers, or
IMDB identifiers, coupled with a distributed hash table like Kademlia.

The system should undoubtedly use a system that automatically creates the
BitTorrent trackers to maximize the bandwidth utilization of the file
sharing clients.

No rocket science here, move along.

Invitations and Detection Avoidance

To join a social file-sharing network, you will need an invitation from an
existing member. Invitations are simply small XML files that contain the
right keys for joining the network. The invitations may also specify the
right parameters for finding the network, since Darknets do their best to
not operate out in the open.

First off, all traffic flowing through the social network, including file
transfers, should be tunneled via SSH, so that someone sniffing your
network connection cannot tell the difference between a legitimate VPN
connection or an infringing trade of the hottest apple-pie recipe.

Second, the applications that form the social network should attempt to
blend into the landscape and either be invisible or indistinguishable from
normal network infrastructure, such as an SSH server. The easiest form of
this is to operate on the same port as the SSH server itself. A more
complicated approach of Port Knocking was recently proposed on Slashdot --
it requires a series of predetermined failed connection attempts to the
server before the server opens the real port for the client.

Another approach is port changing, where the server and the client
frequently switch ports on which they listen to for connections. The
invitation could include the parameters needed to calculate which port a
server would be listening on for any given time.

Regardless of which technique is employed, the goal is the same:  outside
attackers see nothing but SSH connections.


The applications that make up the social network should employ standard
off-the-shelf tools like SSH, PGP and BitTorrent. After all, these tools
specialize in their respective areas, and it is not wise to reinvent the
wheel -- especially when it comes to security. Any network connection made
by the file-sharing software should be tunneled via an SSH connection.

The baseline security model of this software should be to revert back to
the same security of an open system in the case of a system compromise. If
the system is busted wide open for some reason, only the IP addresses of
the participants should be exposed. In today's legal climate, having
solely an IP address forces the attackers to file anonymous John Doe
lawsuits. This is exactly the same procedure reserved for people who use
open systems like Kazaa.

This fact gives users of social software file-sharing applications a leg
up on file sharers using Kazaa. Mounting an attack on Kazaa users requires
freely available and easy-to-use network tools. Mounting an attack on a
network fortified with SSH requires vastly different tools and a
brute-force attack is out of the question. Thus, the attackers are more
likely to stick to pursuing the users of open file-trading applications.

The most vulnerable part of a social network is the users themselves.  As
security experts have been saying for a long time, most successful attacks
are not technical attacks, but attacks that exploit the weaknesses of the
users. Passwords jotted down in insecure locations, or smooth-talking
attackers convincing users of their benign nature, present far greater
weakness than the SSH protocol.

Ultimately, the security of the network lies in the hands of the users.  
This is why the social policies set by the tribal elders are so important
-- the policies affect the mindset of the user, which in turn affects
their behavior. Social policies that permit promiscuous behavior can lead
to security breaches.

Attack Model

Analyzing the possible attacks on a social file-sharing network gives us
three possible attacks:

	Server attack: The central server gets hacked, raided by legal
attackers, or otherwise compromised. Since the server operates blindly
with respect to what the clients are doing, the server contains no
incriminating evidence. The attacker cannot tell a recipe-trading network
from a movie-trading network. At worst, the IP addresses of the members
can be exposed and those must be pursued with a John Doe lawsuit.

	Client attack: A client gets hacked, raided by legal attackers, or
otherwise compromised. The compromised client could potentially continue
operating and collect the IP addresses of everyone in the network.
Incriminating behavior could be observed.

	Social client attack: An attacker gets invited to the network and
starts participating in the network. Over time, the attacker can collect
all of the IP addresses of the members and possibly observe incriminating

At worst, the server attack yields IP addresses that may not have
committed any infringement. Client attacks expose the IP addresses and
possibly allow the attacker to observe infringing activities. While this
model may seem catastrophic, it's better than the open P2P system model
that Kazaa uses. Given that attackers are likely to attack the easy
targets first, using a social network to share files presents an increased
level of security -- for now.

Should a time come when all open systems have been eradicated, this system
will need extra fortification. As the much discussed web-of-trust
algorithms and anonymization algorithms come of age, these algorithms
should be adapted for use with social file sharing to continually improve
the attack resistance of these networks.


Over the past few years, we've learned a number of legal and technical
lessons that allow us to build more secure and effective file-sharing
systems today. Using detection-avoidance schemes and common security tools
like SSH and PGP forces the attackers to take a different track when
attacking next-generation file-sharing systems. Attackers must now employ
social attacks to take down file-sharing systems, and social attacks don't
scale as well as online attacks that can be assisted with computer tools.

The security model presented here is only sufficient for a limited time --
over time, more advanced web-of-trust algorithms should be used to further
mitigate the damage of a compromised network.

Finally, it should be stressed again that the security of a social network
grows out of the social policies set for the network. Tribal elders and
members of the network need to be continually vigilant to keep the network
safe from outside attackers.


Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond

Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution by Howard Rheingold

Urban Tribes: A Generation Redefines Friendship, Family, and Commitment by
Ethan Watters

File Sharing goes Social by Clay Shirky

Robert Kaye  is the Mayhem & Chaos Coordinator and creator of 
MusicBrainz, the music metadata commons. 

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