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Trapping file-sharers?

Mediadefender_logo The spy-vs-spy world of p2p networks took a revealing turn this weekend -- literally. A person or group called MediaDefender-Defenders unleashed onto BitTorrent a huge cache of e-mails -- internal ones, evidently -- ostensibly written by executives and employees at MediaDefender, one of the leading vendors of anti-piracy services. I can't speak for the authenticity of the e-mails, which I haven't yet read, or the accuracy of the reporting on them. I'm just noting the controversy they've flamed, or, more accurately, re-ignited.

The messages, if they are authentic, include many details about what MediaDefender does and how it does it. The bulk of this information isn't surprising; MediaDefender made no secret of the fact that it monitors p2p networks and tries to dupe users into downloading spoofs instead of the real thing. The practice has been around for years, and it contributed to the exodus of users from Kazaa -- a very easy network to spoof effectively. Rather, what has p2p advocates worked up now is new revelations about MediaDefender's sub rosa work on video trading site called MiiVi. The TorrentFreak news site reported in July that MiiVi wasn't the typical BitTorrent-powered enterprise, but rather a copyright-enforcement ploy launched by MediaDefender. Randy Saaf, MediaDefender's CEO, insisted back then that MiiVi was merely an internal research project, but some say the newly release e-mails show otherwise.

It's worth noting that TorrentSpy TorrentFreak, in a later post this weekend about the e-mails, said things probably were less nefarious than they originally seemed:

Interestingly, no evidence can be found that MediaDefender is actually involved in prosecuting or gathering evidence against filesharers (as we reported earlier). Their core business is releasing fake files and polluting the filesharing networks.

Umm, that's tantamount to saying "There's no fire" after you've cleared the theater. Still, the whole episode is more than just another black eye for the copyright-enforcement community. The e-mail trove reportedly includes payroll data, revealing MediaDefender employees' Social Security numbers and home addresses. That's an ID theft nightmare in the making. I imagine that in the eye-for-an-eye culture of file-sharing, MediaDefender-Defenders feels this is merely rough justice. But it strikes me as the sort of imprecise, over-the-top response that has come to characterize the true believers on both sides of the battle over online piracy.

Although MediaDefender isn't a computer security company in the traditional sense (in other words, its mission isn't to guard firms against hackers), there's still some irony here. As Eric Garland, CEO of BigChampagne, observed, MediaDefender's business is combating unauthorized access to entertainment -- the sort of thing that was designed to be seen by as many people as possible. Internal e-mails and personal financial information, on the other hand, were meant to be seen by as few people as necessary. "If MediaDefender can't even keep the wide world from freely accessing their employees' salary and bonus info, what of their day jobs?" Garland asked. Good question.

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Times editorial writer Jon Healey pens opinion pieces about a variety of business issues, and blogs about technologies that are changing the entertainment industry's business model.

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