Colleges learn flash-drive perils

Tiny, easy-to-lose devices are stolen or mislaid with increasing frequency at universities

August 16, 2007|By Cox News Service

ATLANTA -- Crawling around his college newspaper office on a fruitless search for his flash drive, Josh Weiss learned a tough lesson in data recovery: When you lose a device smaller than a stick of gum, it's unlikely you're going to find it.

Lucky for Weiss, a senior at the University of Georgia, the tiny portable memory drive that fell off his key chain contained just a few files for a forthcoming edition of his newspaper. "An inconvenience," he said of the loss.

Flash drives, which slide into a computer's USB port and can hold thousands of documents, songs and pictures, increasingly are becoming a security risk on college campuses.

A Texas A&M professor, vacationing in Madagascar, made headlines in May when he lost a flash drive containing 8,000 student Social Security numbers.

School officials at Grand Valley State University in Michigan recently notified 3,000 people of a security breach after a flash drive with secure data was stolen from an English department office.

And last month, an accounting professor at Bowling Green University told administrators he lost a flash drive that contained 199 Social Security numbers of students he had taught 15 years ago.

Back in Atlanta, college Web sites are often filled with panicky students trying to track down their devices. This posting popped up from a design student who left a drive in a Georgia Tech studio:

"It's black and it's a San-Disk!! AND THE THING IS THAT I HAVE MY DIGITAL DOCUMENTATION ON IT!!!! SO PLEASSEEE - if anyone has it please let me know."

W. Keith Edwards, an associate computer science professor at Georgia Tech, said many people are too cavalier with the drives.

"They're so small and inexpensive, people think of them as being disposable," he said. If you left a laptop at airport security, you would quickly notice and run back for it, he said. "But a flash drive? Probably not."

As portable media like cell phones and memory cards get smaller and smaller, the challenges with securing the data inside them grow.

Flash drives, also called thumb or jump drives, have been around since 2000. Far smaller than compact discs or floppy disks, they can hold from 32 megabytes to 8 gigabytes - storage enough for more than half a million pages of Word documents - and range in price from about $10 to $50. Plug one into any personal computer and the data stored on the drive boots up.

For many students, the drives are a convenient way to transport term papers and homework assignments to the school computer lab. Professors like them because they can load lectures, research and tests and take them between home and work. Newer, more expensive models have encryption technology - such as fingerprint identification systems.

Still, encryption policies for flash drives and laptop computers vary from college to college, said Tom Maier, the vice chancellor for information and instructional technology for the 35-campus Georgia university system.

"So much of this is not a technology issue," he said. "It's about making the community aware of what the problems and risks are."

As laptops and other portable devices have made it easier to move data from place to place, colleges and universities nationwide have struggled to try to limit the amount of sensitive student information available.

Social Security numbers are the "low hanging fruit" for identity theft on college campuses, said Betsy Broder, an assistant director of the Federal Trade Commission's privacy and identity protection department.

Institutions seem to be learning from their mistakes. At Grand Valley State University, where clerical workers had stored more than 3,000 Social Security numbers on a flash drive that was stolen, university officials reviewed their policies.

Lynn Blue, the school's vice provost and dean of academic services and information technology, said the school also required the staff members involved in that security breach to man the phone lines when angry students called.

The flash drive has not been recovered.

Weiss, the University of Georgia student, also is still looking for his drive.

"I try not to use them for anything I wouldn't want other people to see," he said. "If you lose it, you're out of luck."

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