In today’s fast-paced world of information technology, file sharing has become a more and more central process involved in many aspects of our society. Most of the documents and files that we share between businesses and individuals in today’s world are transferred digitally, rather than physically. This change has drastically affected the way we think about data, as well as how we need to think about keeping our data safe.

When transferring our data between different people and places, it is important to make sure we are aware of the risks involved, and that we are taking the proper steps to ensure the safety of our data, as well as that of others. Keeping our file transfers secure can be a very complex rabbit hole, but the general idea is that we need to keep ourselves well informed and equipped to deal with the threats that are out there. The first step to understanding how to keep our files safe is to first understand what file sharing actually is.

What is file sharing?

File sharing is the simple activity of sharing data (files) on a network, whether it be public or private. According to accessibility permissions, users on the network can view or edit the files that are being shared, which allows a select group of people to access files for a specific purpose. The practical applications of file sharing are endless, and can range from simple communications within a workplace, to worldwide multimedia networks accessed by millions of users.

There are many different ways in which file sharing is done, and each has its own advantages and disadvantages. Understanding the different ways in which files are transferred across networks is a key aspect of understanding how to keep file sharing secure. Let’s take a moment to go over the different types, and how they compare to one another:

  • File Transfer Protocols (FTP). This is the most common type of file transfer used on the internet. FTP is used among a specific group of users, who can access or edit files using a password. The users can edit access the files through a server site.
  • Peer-to-peer networks. This is a system involving computer hardware and software designed to communicate without a central server. This form of file transfer uses networks between peers, who share the traffic and files, rather than having the files available on a centralized server which is then accessed by the users.
  • Removable storage media. This refers to anything that can be removed from a device with files stored on it. This could be a DVD, Blu-Ray disc, thumb drive, or even a floppy. The main advantage to physical media is that you must actually possess it physically in order to access it (in most cases).
  • Online file sharing or cloud services. These are services like Dropbox or Google drive, which store user’s files on a central server in order to allow viewing, editing, and saving. These services allow simple file sharing between different devices, and have support for permissions and passwords much like FTP.

So, now that we know the different types of file sharing and how they generally work, we can take a look at some of the risks involved, and start to wrap our heads around what we can do to protect against them.

What are the risks of file sharing?

Obviously, for certain file sharing activities, such as sharing documents in the work place, it is important to keep your file transfers safe. That being said, what are we exactly keeping them safe from? There are a wide range of risks we open ourselves up to when we access file sharing services, or when malicious users access file sharing services we use.

Some of the risks include:

  • Malware. When downloading files through a p2p network, for example, the files you download might not be verified by a trusted source, and it can be easy to mistakenly download infected files.
  • Copyright infringement. Especially with p2p networks, it is possible to accidentally access copyrighted materials, and distributing such files can be cause for serious litigation.
  • Data loss or theft. Insecure file transfer services leave your data open to be accessed by hackers and other malicious actors.
  • Data mismanagement. Improper usage of a file sharing service can lead to sensitive data mistakenly being placed in a publicly accessible format or location.

These are the main risks that we have to work around when using file sharing services. Once you begin to understand how these risks affect the design and usage of file transfers, knowing how to protect against them becomes quite simple. Some of these risks can be mitigated with proper training and education, but others are not so simple to quash.

If you want to protect against malware for example, it isn’t always enough to simply be careful of what you download. Infected files can be used to compromise the security of your network, which can be devastating to individuals and businesses. In these cases, it is important to consider alternative software and hardware solutions to make sure your file transfers are protected.

There are a few different ways that you can ensure your files are being transferred securely, and understanding these basic methods will go a long way to keeping you and your data safe. These methods include using secure cloud services, working through secure protocols (such as with a VPN), or using specific secure p2p services.

Secure cloud services

There are a wide range of cloud storage services which allow users to store files on the cloud, and access them from any device that supports the service. These can also be used by businesses to give specific groups of people access to the files they want, as well as control permissions and other features.

The best cloud storage services employ powerful encryption, and use special secure protocols to ensure that user’s data is kept safe from most common forms of attack. Examples of secure cloud services are Box, Tresorit, Dropbox, Google Drive, Microsoft Onedrive, and Amazon Drive.

Using secure protocols, or a VPN for secure file sharing

There are a wide range of encrypted protocols designed for safely transmitting sensitive data between users on a network. The most common ones include SSH, or SFTP. Another way of employing this type of encryption to secure your connection is to use a VPN.

Virtual Protocol Networks (VPNs) employ powerful encryption and secure protocols to tunnel your connection through specific servers that can be located in a number of countries. This allows you to keep your data safe, and also allows users to hide where exactly they are connecting from. Using a VPN for secure file sharing is one of the best ways to ensure safety and security.

Examples of good VPN services would be NordVPN or ExpressVPN.

Secure P2P services

There are a number of peer-to-peer networks that are designed specifically for secure file sharing. A good example of this would be Resilio. Although these types of networks can be good for secure file sharing, it is still important to practice safe downloading practices when using any peer-to-peer network.