An invasion of ants has become the unlikely inspiration for what may be an untraceable way to trade files online.
Since last September, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) has filed over 380 copyright infringement lawsuits against suspected online music pirates in the United States. And the effect has been chilling.
A recent Pew survey of online users found just 14 percent still downloading music files from so-called peer-to-peer, or P2P, networks such as KaZaA, compared to 29 percent a year ago. Many cited fears of being nabbed as online "pirates."
Still, the legal clampdown hasn't stopped others, according to a recent survey by market researcher The NPD Group. As many as 12 million individuals claimed to have downloaded music illegally in November — a 9 percent increase in the number of pirates reported in a September survey.
Now Jason Rohrer, a 26-year-old programmer in Potsdam, N.Y., thinks he has a way to really boost file-sharing back into popularity.
When Rohrer was living in Santa Cruz, Calif., and studying for a master's degree in computer science, he noticed a trail of ants had invaded his indoor Ficus tree from the front door. No matter how he tried to destroy the trail — sweeping daily, or blocking the path with chalk or hot pepper — the ants always figured a way around the obstacle to the tree.
"I read about how they use pheromones — chemical scents — to create the trails and how it's used by the colony," says Rohrer. And it inspired him to see if the same "swarm intelligence" could be applied to how programs work over the Internet.
The result: MUTE, freely-available software for a P2P system that Rohrer maintains is almost as hard to trace and stop as, well, ants at a picnic.
Like Foraging Ants, A Circuitous Message Routing
In current P2P networks such as KaZaA and Grokster, software identifies each computer on the network using Internet Protocol (IP) addresses — a string of numbers similar to a telephone number.
When a member searches a P2P network, the request — say for music by Britney Spears — goes out across the network. Computers that have the requested files send a response back directly to the computer that made the request using the IP address.
Files are traded directly between computers in small packets using the IP addresses — making it extremely easy to track.
But MUTE's system has several different ways to thwart tracking efforts.
First of all, each computer on the MUTE network is "addressed" by a random string of characters and numbers. And each time a computer connects to the MUTE network, a new random address is generated.
When a MUTE member searches a file, Rohrer says the request goes out from the originating computer only to nearby computers the program knows about. If the files aren't found there, the MUTE software on those nearby computers then sends out requests to the next set of computers they know about.
Like ants foraging for food, the requests continue on their way across the network. When the file is finally located on the network, the computer that has the file sends the message back to the nearby computer that sent the request, which then passes it on the computer that it received the request from and so on.
Calling for Attention
Rohrer says MUTE's setup offers several advantages over current P2P networks.
For one, chances of finding and retrieving a particular file across the network might be increased since each computer on the network is actively looking and sending data back to the originating computer.
Rohrer compares it to sending a message using the old "telephone" party game.
"Let's say you're in a room crowded with people, one of whom is someone you know," says Rohrer. "To reach that person, you ask the seven people next to you to pass a written message to that person. They may not know the person or where he is in the room, but in turn, they'll copy and pass the note to the people closest to them and so on. Eventually, the person you want to reach gets the message because you've covered everyone in the room."
What's more, such a system offers another layer of anonymity to user. In order for parties such as the RIAA to track such requests, the organization would have to monitor every single computer on the MUTE network.
Rohrer says he initially didn't design MUTE as a blatant challenge to the RIAA and its efforts to stop piracy. But he says he was troubled by the recent RIAA lawsuits, which he believes trampled on individual's rights to privacy.
"It's a scary environment to be living in when an organization like the RIAA can just snoop on what you're doing online," says Rohrer. "I've created a piece of software that helps people protect their privacy."
Flies in the Ointment
But even he admits that for the privacy and other possible advantages a MUTE network would offer, there are plenty of downsides as well.
For now, MUTE has garnered only a very small group of users. Since its initial released last month, just about 32,000 have downloaded the program to establish the fledgling P2P net. That hardly a drop in the bucket compared to the millions of computers running KaZaA or Gnutella worldwide.
And there's no guarantee that if the network gets bigger, it will become as powerful as other file sharing networks. In fact, Rohrer admits that MUTE may become terribly inefficient if too many computers — each generating its own messages as well as passing along search requests from all the other computers on the network — join up.
What's more, there are questions if such a network would survive any legal battles in the ongoing war between the RIAA and purported music pirates.
Last month a U.S. District Court had ruled that the lawsuit tactics used by the RIAA to obtain user information from ISPs was illegal, marking a small victory for advocates of privacy.
But in a reaction statement released by RIAA President Cary Sherman: "This decision in no way changes our right to sue, or the fact that those who upload or download copyrighted music without authorization are engaging in illegal activity. We can and will continue to file copyright infringement lawsuits against illegal file sharers."
So while Rhorer's tiny, experimental Mute network has escaped the attention of the RIAA so far, there's no guarantee that the music industry will challenge him and his creation much like they did Shaun Fanning and his Napster creation.
And that leaves it unclear if MUTE will become the latest pest to the RIAA's attempts to thwart piracy, or squashed like the insect that inspired it.