Campus IT officials feel safer, but fear botnets

Campus computer networks are better protected than they were five years ago, college and university IT administrators said in a newly released survey, but they warned that the viruses student computers can bring to a network still linger as a threat to expensive servers, other hardware, and software.

The Association for Information Communications Technology Professionals in Higher Education (ACUTA) surveyed computer officials in higher education at the organization’s annual conference in Atlanta this month. The survey found that eight out of 10 IT officials believe their campus infrastructure is safer than it was in 2004, with 6 percent saying they feel less secure.

Still, nearly half of respondents said their campus’s cyber security has been compromised in the last year alone, exposing at least some student information (though 70 percent of these incidents were characterized as minor). About 80 computer administrators completed the survey, an ACUTA spokeswoman said.

Campus IT departments have invested in programs that detect harmful viruses and botnets–groups of compromised computers that can cause damage to university hardware–but only 18 percent of ACUTA survey respondents said their schools use enhanced logins, which require faculty and students to identify icons or type letters from a graphic before they are given access to the campus network.

Some schools have bought thumb-print scanners for student identification, adding another layer to the login process.
Matt Arthur, ACUTA’s president-elect and director of incident response at Washington University in St. Louis, said higher education has been criticized this decade for often using students’ Social Security numbers for identification purposes, making a key piece of personal information vulnerable to malicious hackers.

“I definitely think that it’s taken universities a while” to transition from using students’ personal information to other methods of identification, such as passwords and thumb scanning, Arthur said. “To move away from that took a really large effort. It’s a long, slow process … and now we have decent identification measurements in place.”

Arthur said Washington University’s cyber security is monitored by employees who check the school’s intrusion detection system for any signs of network interference. The university has focused on sniffing out botnets before they do serious damage to IT equipment. Arthur said botnets often lie dormant for days or weeks before the hacker who planted the virus does damage, but new software allows the campus’s security team to find the botnets before they are activated.

“We do proactive work to watch for those [botnets] that call out for their hosts,” he said, adding that university computers infected with a botnet are usually rebuilt before they are usable again.

Arthur said his IT department uses Snort, an open-source intrusion detection program gaining traction among universities and businesses looking for more reliable data protection. Snort has more than 225,000 users worldwide, according to its web site. Snort users can share what they have found to be the most effective ways to detect incoming viruses and botnets, because the product is open source and available to anyone who can download it on the Snort web site.

Intrusion detection software, Arthur said, “has evolved to the point where it’s almost a necessity.”

He also said the installation of programs that force student laptops to register themselves with campus networks has marked a major step in monitoring who is using the network throughout the day.

At Washington University, if a student’s computer does not meet minimal security requirements–and therefore is a risk for transferring a virus into the school’s network–the computer is barred from network connection until the problems are solved, Arthur said.

“We want to make sure their computer, when it comes on to our network, is virus free,” said Arthur, who added that student hackers were not a primary concern on his school’s campus.

The most common way campus IT officials deal with cyber security is through educating faculty, staff, and students on the multitude of computer threats that jeopardize the privacy of network users, according to the ACUTA survey. Fifty-eight percent of respondents said their campuses have computer education workshops or seminars, and Arthur said his campus’s resident assistants conduct lessons on safe approaches to accessing the local network.

“There’s no silver bullet,” he said. “It’s just a constant effort.”

Viruses and malware were named the top threat in the ACUTA survey, while internal controls ranked second and phishing–illegal communication seeking personal information–ranked third among common threats.
The ACUTA survey asked respondents to rank their technology security on a scale from 1 to 5, with 5 representing the best security. The average overall ranking from respondents was 3.7.

About one-fourth of those surveyed said technology projects have been delayed by security threats at their institutions.
Some U.S. campuses have ramped up access card security, ensuring that only faculty members and students are allowed into lecture halls and laboratories. Sharon Moore, director of telecommunications at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., said her campus is converting to proximity cards, which often have a transmitter inserted that sends a signal to a security system that tells a door to open.

While many colleges still use conventional access cards–which have magnetic stripes, similar to credit cards–the proximity cards are a sensible investment, Moore said. Magnetic stripes can be easily de-encoded, forcing students to buy new ones. A magnetic stripe card costs about 50 cents, and a proximity card costs $5, Moore said.
“There’s a greater convenience with the proximity card,” she said.

Jeri Semer, executive director of ACUTA, which has 2,000 members from 790 colleges and universities, said raising concerns about cyber security would not only protect pricey campus investments, but also guard students’ most sensitive personal information.

The goal of campus IT administrators “is to protect not only the networks themselves, but also the valuable confidential information that their institutions store on those networks,” Semer said. “The unfortunate truth about the advancements in information [and] communications technology is that the burden of keeping networks safe has only grown more challenging.”

The rise in identity theft and computer-related crimes, Moore said, has raised awareness among campus decision makers and spurred new investment in technology that could prevent security breaches.

“I think there’s just this consciousness of making sure that the network and the computer you’re working on are secure,” said Moore, who added that faculty and staff are coached on how to create complex passwords that can’t be easily guessed by outsiders. “All you need to know is one person who has been the victim of identify theft, and you’ll be sure to be careful.”



Washington University at St. Louis

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