A popular Internet service that locates digital music and video files also has allowed users to peer at any kind of multimedia file stored on many personal computers - sometimes without the owners' knowledge.
Scour Inc., a Beverly Hills, Calif.-based new-media company backed by Hollywood super-agent Michael Ovitz, has attracted millions of users eager to tap into what the company boasts is one of the Internet's biggest collection of digital entertainment.
Scour's search engine has created a massive entertainment jukebox, which enables users to access any photograph, sound recording or video clip stored on tens of millions of PCs. But the engine also breaks with accepted search tradition, say technology experts, because some of these multimedia files are up for grabs only because many consumers don't know that anyone can look inside their machines.
Scour's attorney insists that the company's search technique is legal. But security experts say that Scour is rattling the virtual front doors of PC owners, and giving a one-stop shopping list of computers that are easy to break into.
"To say that all people are giving their permission for Scour to do this is wrong," said Bruce Forest, director of new-media projects for Viant Inc., an Internet services firm. "The average lug can't configure a VCR, let alone a secure Internet connection."
Company officials insist they're only looking for harmless material which they say consumers have given them tacit approval to scan. They note that the company doesn't search for sensitive material such as financial documents, although they say that the software could do just that.
"It may be unfamiliar technology to users, but it's certainly legal and not uncommon to search publicly available content. ... You are responsible for your own computer," said Scour co-founder Dan Rodrigues. "We're not damaging [anyone's] computer."
The PCs that are routinely being searched typically have high-speed Internet access and have linked at least two computers - and opened parts of their hard disks - together in their home. That's only about 20 percent of all U.S. households that own computers, but researchers predict that 600 million PCs worldwide will be networked together by 2003.
Scour's little-known searching technique illustrates the problems with personal privacy issues in cyberspace, said Stuart Biegel, a professor of Internet law at UCLA.
"In an age of file-sharing and Napster, where computers and information are all connected, these issues are not going to go away," Biegel said.
The free service, Scour Exchange, is a file-sharing program that lets people swap music and movie files with one another. If a member can't find what they want, they can then use Scour's search engine to locate their tunes somewhere on the vast Internet. So can anyone who visits the company's Web site, www.scour.com.
What many users don't know is that Scour's search engine not only looks over the established public sections of the Net such as the World Wide Web, it also looks for PCs whose owners have turned on the public file-sharing option and - either intentionally or not - opened their machine's guts to the world.
Late Thursday afternoon, Scour's attorney said that the company will discontinue its information gathering technique by next month, because of new technology.
"We take the privacy of our users very seriously and it's a top priority," said Craig Grossman, Scour's general counsel. "If you review the privacy policies on the site and Scour Exchange, you'll see that we work very hard to safeguard that privacy."
What worries critics is not what Scour is doing. They fear that other companies will follow Scour's lead and start searching for data more sensitive than the latest Britney Spears song.
It all started innocently enough in 1997, years before file-swapping programs like Napster let college students electronically share their music collections.
Tucked inside the UCLA dorms, Rodrigues and four fellow UCLA computer-science majors combined their student research projects and built a search engine that hunted for multimedia files. The software looked for things that were cool and fun, whether it was movies or music or art.
Like traditional search engines such as AltaVista, Scour's engine uses robotic software agents, known as "bots" or "spiders," to crawl about computer networks and scoop up information.
These bots freely traverse under the accepted principle that any Web page, or download site that does not require a password, is a public forum and the material can be viewed by anyone.
AltaVista, one of the Net's oldest search companies, lets people look for either text or digital music files. Like Scour, AltaVista's bots search Web pages and certain download sites, which are public electronic storage spots where people house data that can be downloaded.
"We try to focus on stuff where there seems to be a clear intent to publish or share material," said Nick Whyte, technical director for AltaVista's multimedia search group. "That's why we focused on the Web and FTP [sites], where people [obviously] are saying they want to share their stuff and tell others."
Scour's founders looked further: They also send bots out to scan for multimedia files stored on any machine that uses a computer protocol called Server Message Block, or SMB.
The protocol is a little-known but crucial standard that allows one machine to connect - and communicate - with another. Most home and corporate networks with computers using Windows rely on SMB.
"If you are using the file- or printer-sharing features in Windows, then you are using SMB," said Noury Bernard-Hasan, a PC group product manager for Microsoft Corp.
Searching via the SMB protocol was a natural - and obvious - step for the young Scour founders. SMB was the way students in the UCLA dorm rooms could share computer files with each other. Students jumped at the chance to add their PCs to Scour's small but growing list of machines to search, Rodrigues said.
Scour's searches slowly expanded from machines on the campus, to machines on the Internet. The bots continued to scan Web sites, as well as for the SMB protocol.
Local buzz about the young company attracted the attention of Ovitz and the Yucaipa Cos., who together made a minority investment in Scour last year.
Ovitz declined to comment about his investment in Scour, as well as its searching techniques. Officials with the Yucaipa Cos. could not be reached for comment.
As the Internet's popularity grew, the number of people who opened their PCs to strangers on the Net grew as well.
That trend inadvertently allowed Scour's bots to cross a blurry line that keeps PCs - even ones connected to the Net - firmly in the private world. Because there are dozens of ways to network machines together, it is easy for consumers to forget about their own digital security.
Nearly 1.5 million people have downloaded the Scour Exchange program, and millions more access the company's search engine via its Web site. The privately held company declined to discuss its finances. It draws some revenue from ads on its Web site.
Scour officials say no one has filed a complaint with them about the searching practice. If anyone did, he or she would be directed to a page on Scour's Web site where a person's computer can be removed from the company's service.
But security and technology experts were flabbergasted by Scour's rationale. Searching via the SMB protocol crosses the line between what is truly public and what may have become public by accident, they say.