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Peer-to-Peer (P2P) systems let you exchange files without a web site or other centralized system. The most famous of these services are used to share music files. There are plenty of other P2P systems. Some allow you to exchange other types of files including video, photographs, text documents, and software.

Aside from the legal and ethical issues regarding the unauthorized sharing of copyrighted material, there are some serious safety issues regarding these services. Some of the downloaded files — including photographs and videos — may be upsetting or harmful. It’s also a popular way for child molesters to exchange illegal images of children.

P2P file-sharing systems encourage users who download files to upload them as well. This may turn your PC into a server that shares your files, which can place you in legal trouble or possibly allow others to gain access to personal stuff on your computer. It’s like giving someone you don’t know the opportunity to know everything about you. It can also cause problems for other computers if you’re on a business, home, or school network.

Another problem with file-sharing services is the software used to access them can sometimes come with unwelcome extra “features” such as “spy ware” programs that can invade your privacy and display annoying advertising.

If you use a file-sharing service, be careful about what “permissions” you give when you set it up. Avoid sharing your own files and say no to any offers to install extra software. Even then, there is no guarantee you will not experience problems as a result of having the software on your computer.