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Back to School: Backpacks, Books & Bots

Universities brace for increase in security breach attempts as students - and profs - return to campus

The annual back-to-campus ritual this semester may carry a little extra baggage: A Storm worm variant may also be along for the ride, tucked away in the student's laptop.

Brian Kelly, director of information security for Quinnipiac University, is gearing up for the threat this week as students begin converging on the Hamden, Conn., campus. Kelly says he expects the majority of the private college's around 7,000 students to have some variant of the prolific Storm worm on their laptops when they move in next week -- even though Quinnipiac issues the machines to students, along with a standard software "build."

"Storm was originally propagating over P2P [peer to peer], with spam, and now a lot of Websites have it. So we expect that [the students] may be bringing that in," Kelly says. "So we have to make sure we have scripts for those types of signatures."

Kelly says Storm poses the biggest virus and botnet-infection risks to students, but he's confident that Quinnipiac's portal for client machines -- which he calls a "poor man's NAC" -- will clean up any infected machines before they connect to the campus' 802.1X-based wireless LAN.

Alert Logic, an IPS and vulnerability assessment application service provider that has a large number of education customers, says there's typically a tenfold increase in security incidents such as worms and Trojans on college campuses and in other academic settings in August and September, when school starts up again. "All our [customers] are dreading August and September," says Scott Hollis, director of product management for Alert Logic. "They tend to see a tenfold increase then as students and teachers come back. It levels off after that."

There are about one or two attack attempts per day at educational institutions during the summer, Hollis says, but that number jumped to 40 or 50 attempts per day in August and September of last year.

University security pros such as Kelly are holding their breaths to see what their new security challenges will be this year on campus. It's not that they face different exploits or vulnerabilities than the corporate world. It's that they must somehow strike a delicate balance between preserving campus openness with the increasingly meaner streets of cyberspace. (See Report: Web 'Mean Streets' Pervasive.)

Some, like Quinnipiac and the University of Missouri-Columbia, require that student laptops get vetted before they hit the network via special health-check portals. Missouri-Columbia's IPSs, for instance, automatically quarantine bot-infected machines that try to initiate an Internet Relay Chat (IRC) session, and send them back to the university's registration portal to get cleaned up. (See University Cleans Up Bots on Campus.)

Many colleges and universities segment their networks, securing the staff and research portions while leaving the student segment to the students, Alert Logic's Hollis says. "They tend to have a student network that is fairly 'dirty,' " Hollis says. "Students are constantly opening questionable emails. They tend to visit disreputable Websites. They use P2P, and instant messaging heavily... They generally have poor Internet hygiene."

"They [universities] may recommend that students are running AV and personal firewalls on their desktops, but very few are mandating it," he says. "Keeping DAT files is hard to do. They just don't have the budget and are understaffed."

The latest strategy is to make security a "cool" thing on campus. "I can't solve every possible contingency with technology," says Quinnipiac's Kelly, who is also adding IPSs to the network in the next few days. "This year, we're focusing on cultural issues with security-awareness training."

That means making security more personal, so the students don't just pay lip service to warnings about opening suspicious emails, or put their birthdates and physical addresses on their Facebook sites. "If I say, 'you need to update your AV,' they will say they don't care," Kelly says. "But when I say you could lose your work or your identity, they perk up and listen more."

Of course, it can be a challenge to make security "cool" in a place where self-control is constantly tempted by new freedoms, new technology, and loads of free time.

"College students today think they are computer geniuses. But they don't know what they don't know," says Richard Bunnell, senior security engineer with MassMutual Financial Group, which has an outreach program with nearby universities in New England to raise security awareness. "Many are still giving out way too much information on their Facebook accounts, he says, and still don't "get" digital rights management issues associated with downloading music illegally.

Interestingly, universities aren't especially worried about the wave of BlackBerries, iPhones, and iPods students are schlepping along with them -- for now, anyway. "Most incidents are on their other equipment," not the handheld devices, Hollis says.

Quinnipiac University, for instance, last year had a botnet outbreak that occurred after students returned with their laptops from winter holiday break. But its biggest security headache was a virus that spread in the wake of the Symantec AV client vulnerability, Kelly says.

And it's not just the students that universities must worry about. "Teachers have laptops, too, and they are pulling those assets offsite, using them at Starbucks and on home cable modems and DSL. They pick up Trojans and then walk back into the staff [campus] network with them," Alert Logic's Hollis says. "We find the incidents universities care about are mostly introduced by staff."

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