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Behind the Front Lines

They can strike at any time, you never see them coming and their destruction is enough to bring mass chaos into the lives of thousands of people.

No, it’s not terrorists in a far off country, but a form of cyber mayhem experienced on university campuses and corporate facilities nationwide.

Crimes using computers and technology are an emerging problem in today’s society and those who work to fight against them often feel like they’re in a losing battle.

According to Kent Strickland, information security officer at the University, it’s hard to keep up because of the countless ways computer networks and software can be compromised.

“Basically the problem is that computers are very pervasive,” he said . “Everybody’s pretty much got one and there’s plenty of security vulnerabilities and ways these things can be abused. There’s just so many ways these problems manifest themselves, it makes it difficult.”

Strickland, one of three information security officials employed at the University, watches for computer viruses, network policy violations and hacking attempts from both inside and outside the University network. He also devotes large chunks of his day to researching up-and-coming technologies and techniques used by those who turn their computers into crime weapons.

While hacking attempts are not a daily occurrence at the university, they do exist, often being discovered in spurts, Strickland said. “There have been weeks where we’ve found two or three [hacking instances] at a time,” he said. “Once you’re looking for a certain technique, and you start probing for that, you might find several all at once.”

Whether it’s seeking access to course grades, pin numbers or just to have fun with someone else’s computer, most hacking at the university occurs “robotically,” Strickland said, meaning access is gained through worms– programs that replicate without human intervention.

But often, officials have found, hackers do not have an intentional motive behind their illegal behavior.

“Their intent may depend on what they find when they get in,” Strickland said. “I think they probably look for a vulnerable system and use some technology to take control of it and then once they’re in, figure out what they want to do.”

According to Strickland, the storing of illegal movies, software and games on Windows PCs is something that has been seen more recently on campus over the past few years. A copy of the digitally-enhanced “Star Wars” movie released in November of 2000, was found hidden on the network days before its official release.

Viruses: They’re everywhere

Strickland and others continue to search for vulnerabilities in the network in an attempt to keep computer viruses from finding their way onto campus. This effort has increased, Strickland said, since the University network fell victim in August to some of today’s fastest-moving e-mail viruses–MS Blaster, Sobig.F and Nachi. Technology officials had never experienced anything like it at the University, Strickland said.

The viruses infected more than 1,200 University systems total in less than a week.

“We hadn’t had anything of that magnitude before,” he said. “My biggest concern was trying to figure out how that happened so we can see if we can take steps to see that those things don’t happen in the future.”

The Next Level

But such security concerns are not limited to universities. Watching for viruses, hacking attempts and the misuse of computer policies is also seen at the corporate level.

For Loren Wagner, manager of network services at Cooper Tire in Findlay, protecting against threats brought in by outside computers is becoming a significant problem. Wagner, who has worked at Cooper for 27 years, oversees the department that provides e-mail services for more than 5,500 employees, firewall protection from viruses and web filtering.

While all company computers have virus-checking software which is updated automatically, there is not this guarantee with outside systems, he said.

On average, more than 7,500 e-mail viruses are detected each month and more than 200 others a month attempt to enter the company network through other ways.

“Mobile clients are a challenge since connections to the network are inconsistent making the update of [protection software] spotty,” he said. “Contractor PCs are also difficult to manage and have been known to introduce viruses into our network.”

Jeff Shadle, advanced senior information technology specialist at Marathon Oil in Findlay, echoes Wagner’s views on outside threats. Shadle, who is an alumnus of BGSU, has worked at Marathon for 26 years and helps to develop risk assessments and raise security awareness for the company.

“When considering communication outside of our network, we operate from a posture of blocking everything and specifically opening up only what is required for business needs,” he said. “We require a business case to document the need for a given path through the network. This eliminates the tendency to ask for things which may catch your fancy, but could result in a security risk.”

The People Problem

While they may use different equipment and work in different environments, these technology officials agree on one thing–it’s people that cause the problems.

“It is people that establish and execute policy, assign budgets, define and implement procedures … systems and codes,” Wagner said. “In a broad sense, the biggest security threat is trying to rely on technology to solve people problems.”

Strickland echoes Wagner’s views and believes that it is indeed people and their actions that present the biggest security risk at the University.

“I know it sounds strange, but it’s not so much a technical issue really,” he said. “Obviously vulnerabilities exist … but you have to look at all of the various social factors involved.”

The “people problem” isn’t new according to Strickland, who said he sees some of the same software vulnerabilities now that he saw while attending college in the 1970s. The problem, he said, is companies succumbing to a demanding society even if it means releasing not-so-perfect products.

“Why do consumers want the next new thing so badly that they’re ready to shell out money for that product and start using it when it hasn’t been thoroughly market-tested?” he said. “There’s a desire for newness, there’s a desire for change and the pressures have gotten to a point where there’s a great deal of corner cutting. There’s plenty of competition … and that sometimes has a tendency for a company to roll out a product even though they know it’s not in its final form.”

But most don’t seem to be concerned, Strickland said.

“Most people have the perception that there are problems out there but they’re not that bad, so they keep going the way they’ve been going,” he said. “At some point, we’re probably going to have to slow down and spend some time changing their mindset.”

Shadle knows this pressure first-hand working at a company driven by competition, he said. This makes education about the importance of information security –and the job of technology professionals–even more crucial.

“There is always pressure to find ways to conduct business faster, cheaper, better and at times, computer security is seen as impeding this process,” he said. “It is our responsibility … to convince both users and IT [Information Technology] personnel that security must be considered.”

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