Colleges' virus battle costly in time, money

Networks: Round-the-clock student use of campus computer systems makes fighting infection a nearly 24-hour job.

April 22, 2004|By April Taylor | April Taylor,DAILY PRESS

WILLIAMSBURG, Va. - At 4 p.m. on a recent Monday, Matt Keel, a technology engineer at the College of William and Mary, noticed a curious spike on a computer graph that he checks each day to monitor the flow of traffic in and out of the college's digital network.

The sudden leap in outgoing computer traffic - Keel knew from experience - was a sign that a virus or worm had infected machines at the college.

Within an hour, Keel and his colleagues had detected problems with and shut off about a dozen machines from the rest of the network at the Williamsburg school. The relatively "small outbreak" was caused by a computer virus dubbed "Gaobot," Keel explained. Gaobot wreaks its havoc via security flaws within operating systems.

Across the world lat year, computer viruses cost universities and businesses billions of dollars in preventative measures and cleanup. The market for services to prevent computer intrusions in the United States is expected to reach $500 million during the next three years, according to a report this month by the Yankee Group, a Boston-based technology research firm. That will be about five times what was spent last year.

With their high population of heavy Internet users, universities and colleges have the potential to be exposed to a number of digital worms and viruses each day that could slow systems to a crawl and cause time-consuming cleanups, said Dee Liebenstein, a group product manager in the Northern Virginia office of the anti-virus software company Symantec.

"Universities face a very unique challenge in that, one, they are very large and have very large networks," he said. "Unlike corporations, they cannot dictate what's on the machines of all the students and the folks out there that can connect to their network."

College of William and Mary officials said they were unsure how much computer viruses cost the college, but they spend at least $30,000 a year on anti-virus software. That doesn't take into account the cost of labor to deal with virus cleanups. The day that Keel wrestled with Gaobot, the college's technology team detected at least 10,000 infected computer messages on its network.

Most of the infected machines belong to students rather than to faculty or staff, Keel said. The college has more than 4,000 student computers on the network.

"We have very limited problems with the faculty and staff machines because we have much greater control over them," said Chris Ward, director of the Technology Support Center at the college.

Unlike businesses, which tend to shut down after 5 p.m. or so, colleges and educational institutions have heavy computer usage around the clock.

"Our network traffic is often pretty high from about 7 a.m. to about 3 a.m. the next morning when the students actually go to sleep," said Ward. "In a business, it may be busy from 8 [a.m.] to 5 [p.m.] and then everybody goes home for the day and they shut down their systems. But we have a 24-hour network always being used."

Viruses and worms can take machines out of pocket for hours or even days, Keel said.

"A virus requires some sort of interaction to infect a machine, like clicking on a file," he explained. "Worms generally spread without interaction, usually through vulnerabilities, like if there's a flaw in the software."

George Webb, chief information officer for academic and administrative computing at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Va., agreed, adding that CNU is about to upgrade its anti-virus system.

"We're installing a significant upgrade this month," he said. "It will be able to separate viruses even better than the one we have."

Webb said the university also offers students free software upgrades to prevent infections.

Last summer, the College of William and Mary installed an anti-viral scanner on the college's e-mail system as an extra line of defense. Since then, the scanner has recorded 2 million viruses, said Ward. At times, 70 percent of the e-mail coming in at the college has had a virus attached, he added.

As a preventative measure each semester, the college installs software on thousands of computers for freshmen.

The college relies on anti-virus software makers for information and definitions of new viruses and worms. Companies such as Symantec describe what the virus does and how it spreads, give information on what it does to the newly infected machine and offer instructions on how to eliminate it.

"Slammer," a virus that bogged down the college's network about a year ago, caused problems with connectivity between machines. Another virus, "Mydoom," sent 910,000 infected messages in and out of the college's network.

Liebenstein said there's an evolution of what the anti-virus industry calls "blended threats" that can spread to thousands of machines quickly.

"Unfortunately, we can't say that things are getting better," said he. "As the technologies in general become more sophisticated, these worms and viruses follow the pack."

The Daily Press of Newport News, Va., is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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