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Universities Rush to Protect Networks

Source: The Washigton Post
Date: September 05, 2003

Cyberattacks George Mason University administrators, anxious to protect the school's computer network from a raft of viruses and worms plaguing the Internet, today unplugged thousands of students from the network.

At 1:35 p.m. today, network administrators at the Northern Virginia school cut Internet access for all 3,600 students living on campus.

The move should not have come as a surprise to GMU students. Last week, as freshmen reported for orientation, they were required to meet face-to-face with a network security expert to have their laptop or computer checked out. Upper classmen were greeted by school officials who handed out the latest anti-virus software. To get the school's message across, all students were asked to sign a document confirming that their computers were updated with all the needed security upgrades.

Not enough students confirmed that their machines were updated, prompting the GMU action today. Administrators said they would try later today to reconnect dorms, weeding out students with infected PCs. Students living off campus can continue to dial in to the campus computer network.

George Mason is just one of many universities in the region and across the country making computer security a top priority as the fall semester gets underway.

University of Maryland residents who tried to access the school's network for the first time over the past two weeks were corralled onto a Web site to help search for and mend the security hole exploited by Blaster, a computer worm that emerged last month and infected hundreds of thousands of computers worldwide. More than 6,000 students that had yet to apply the needed patches did so, but hundreds of other students ignored the advice and were promptly booted from the university network, said Gerry Sneeringer, an IT security officer at Maryland's Office of Information Technology.

"There were a certain percentage of students that wouldn't listen to us unless we hit them upside the head with a lockout," he said. "You simply can't deal with these problems until you've got your network under control."

At the University of Virginia, some 800 new and returning student residents were knocked offline by the schools' automated security "bots," programs that patrolled the network looking for infected PCs. Students were then handed CD-ROMs loaded with anti-virus toolkits and software patches and were only allowed to plug their computers into the school network after proving they installed needed fixes.

Spokespersons for Howard, American, Georgetown, George Washington and Catholic universities reported far fewer problems with their networks. While several of those schools were forced to disconnect some infected computers, in most cases students asked to prove their PCs were clean before being allowed to access campus networks.

As computers have transformed the way students and teachers interact at most universities, school administrators are focused on protecting their networks. Roughly 80 percent of higher education classes employ e-mail and the Internet for some form of student instruction, according to a 2002 study of more than 640 public and private universities nationwide conducted by the Campus Computing Project.

Instructors at most universities are under tremendous pressure from administrators and students to distribute course material over the Web and through e-mail, and allow students to add and drop classes online, said Steven Worona, director of policy and networking programs at EDUCAUSE, a nonprofit that provides computer training and support for 1,900 colleges, universities, and education organizations.

Because of this dependency on the network, a lot of universities have been forced to place much tougher computer security restrictions on students.

"Schools are rapidly moving far away from the complete openness that used to exist on their networks," Worona said. "What we're seeing is most schools have a desperate need for solutions that can be applied to hundreds or thousands of computers in a very short amount of time."

At George Mason, nearly 95 percent of resident students arrived with a computer this year. Like at many big schools, GMU professors are encouraged to use e-mail to update students on assignments and last-minute changes to the syllabus -- and even to administer pop-quizzes and tests. Last year, instructors were free to send e-mail to an address of the student's choosing, but this semester teachers are required to communicate with their students using the school's e-mail system, thus the school is taking extra steps to ensure that its computer network remains free from viruses.

Despite coordinated efforts to update students' computers, George Mason found that handing out free software to upper classmen didn't guarantee that students could successfully install it.

Kimberly Borchert, a 19-year-old sophomore, said her computer "freaked out" as soon as she plugged it into the school's network last week. The anti-virus software she received from GMU scanned her computer and determined it had been hit with the "Welchia" worm, a so-called "good" worm that destroys Blaster but still attacks other PCs and seizes the victim's computer power and Internet connection. As of Wednesday night, her computer was still infected and thus banned from the school network.

Freshman Andrew Canose was one of several GMU students who encountered problems after installing the university-provided anti-virus software. Canose found the new program conflicted with an older anti-virus program already on his computer. "My computer is like at war with itself and won't work," he said.

Schools outside of the Washington region also scrambled in recent weeks to protect their networks. Vanderbilt University in Nashville last week banned more than 1,300 students -- about one-quarter of all its residents -- from using the network until they cured their machines of Sobig and Blaster infections. The school converted administrative conference rooms into digital triage units so that campus IT experts could help incoming students disinfect and patch their computers, a university spokeswoman said.

At the University of North Texas in Denton, the school found that 4,000 of the school's 5,700 resident students reporting for the fall semester last month brought computers infected with some sort of virus. Students are being charged $30 if a university technician is called in to clean an infected machine, a school spokesman said. Students can go to off-campus experts for a fix but must certify that their computers are updated with the latest security fixes before being allowed to access the campus network.

Brown University mass-produced 8,000 CDs loaded with anti-virus software and security patches and distributed them when students picked up their dorm room keys. Still, the Providence, R.I., Ivy League school was forced to dispatch teams of security experts to residents' rooms to patch computers by hand after university officials detected more than a thousand virus-infected student PCs connecting to the university network.

"I think we really need to groom a new type of student who is responsible for their computer security," said Kathy Gillette, manager of George Mason University's beleaguered tech support center. "A lot of them lived at home and mom or dad took care of the computer so they've never learned how to fix them, but hopefully we'll be able to teach them that too."

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