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File-sharing services maintain their popularity -- at work

An analysis by Palo Alto Networks shows high use of entertainment-oriented file-sharing services in the workplace

When technicians from Palo Alto Networks installed one of the company's firewalls in a Fortune 100 company, they were surprised when the device began examining a massive data stream in and out of the network.

A server within the company was exchanging up to 300 GB per day of data from one of the major browser-based file-sharing networks, one of dozens of websites on the Internet where content such as movies and music are offered and shared without the permission of the copyright holder.

The server "was constantly downloading and uploading," said Matt Keil, senior research analyst at Palo Alto Networks, which said it did not have clearance to identify the company.

The amount of data traded by the company's server is on the extreme side, but a study by Palo Alto Networks of data traffic within companies that use its firewall product shows that use of file-sharing services is common within workplaces. And there's a good chance that the trade in data isn't solely for company business.

Palo Alto Networks examined the traffic transmitted by 1,636 organizations between April and November 2011 and found browser-based file-sharing services in use on 92 percent of those companies' networks. Those kinds of services share content on port 80, the same port as regular "http" web traffic.

One of the most famous browser-based file-sharing services, Megaupload, was shut down by law enforcement authorities in January in several countries. Its operators have been criminally indicted in the U.S. and are awaiting extradition proceedings to begin in August in New Zealand.

Palo Alto Networks also found that 82 percent of the 1,636 organizations had some kind of peer-to-peer file-sharing client running, with organizations running an average of six different applications each.

One of the most popular peer-to-peer clients is uTorrent, a small application that uses small data files called torrents to download content from different computers around the world offering a file.

Users may use file-sharing services at the office because the broadband connections may be faster, Keil said. But downloading content without permission of the copyright owners could put a company at risk of being targeted by copyright infringement lawsuits.

While it is possible that the file-sharing services are being used legally, Keil said many of the sites are geared more towards entertainment rather than services, such as Dropbox or YouSendit.

Many of the browser-based file-sharing services offer users incentives for uploading more content, such as faster speeds when downloading content from the network, Keil said.

Use of browser-based file-sharing services that trade content on port 80 are harder to detect because the traffic looks like normal web traffic and may be harder for organizations to analyze.

Keil said Palo Alto Networks developed a technology called App-ID which identifies exactly what applications employees are using on port 80 and other ports.

Megaupload was very popular. During the last half of 2011, 57 percent of the corporate networks analyzed by Palo Alto Networks had exchanged data with the website.

After its shutdown, users unsurprisingly moved to peer-to-peer based and browser-based file-sharing services. Palo Alto Networks noticed a surge of traffic to Putlocker, another browser-based storage service, as well as 4shared, Keil said.

An email sent to Putlocker with questions regarding its business lately was replied to with an unrelated response that read: " Hello, All access to reported files has been blocked and files are now removed. Thank You."

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