Unplugged but Locked Down: Colleges and Universities Have Worked to Boost Their Wireless Might-Without Causing Security Risks

By Millard, Elizabeth | University Business, October 2005 | Go to article overview

Unplugged but Locked Down: Colleges and Universities Have Worked to Boost Their Wireless Might-Without Causing Security Risks


Millard, Elizabeth, University Business


While planning its wireless implementation, tech leaders at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., hadn't given much thought to security issues until a guest speaker at a college-sponsored conference complimented the college's chief information officer, Robert Renaud, on the excellent wireless service.

Baffled, Renaud asked her how she'd managed to get online, considering that Dickinson's system wasn't operational yet. As it turned out, she'd tapped in to something else--wireless service of the local public library, located near the college president's house.

In recalling the incident, Renaud laughs, but the implications of having an insecure system, like the library had, didn't strike him as amusing. "The incident reminded me of the need to include security in our wireless network planning," he says.

As colleges and universities go from wired to unplugged, staff have found that security risks go along with the transition. IT administrators now have to fret about non-university individuals hopping onto the network for nefarious reasons, and can envision confidential records and student information being grabbed out of midair.

Companies, too, are facing wireless security issues, but academic institutions have different kinds of challenges when it comes to locking down, says Greg Murphy, chief operating officer of AirWave Wireless, a firm that secures Wi-Fi systems at institutions of higher ed. Whereas companies can standardize which laptops and desktops are used, as well as set policies and dictate which security patches can be downloaded, university IT departments have to deal with multiple devices and computer brands, rogue access points, and open-ended technology policies. Also challenging is the 24/7 usage, and limited IT resources, Murphy notes.

"A campus is like a little city," he says. "The problem is that wireless adds complexity, so trying to tackle all these issues on such a large scale can feel overwhelming. That leads colleges to take different approaches to simplify, using the mix of resources and technology they have on hand."

University Business went behind the scenes at several IHEs that make significant use of wireless to find out what they're doing to help keep their networks secure, and how they're policing their "little cities" in the wireless age.

EMBARRASSMENT OF TECHNOLOGY RICHES

Thanks to the speedy pace of technology, a student or faculty member can now get a laptop or PDA that can access a wireless network. Even some cell phones can tap into network resources. But what seems like a wonderful spectrum of choices at the electronics shop can feel like a headache in the campus IT department.

Some colleges have chosen to address the problem with a hands-on approach. At the University of Denver, which has wireless throughout its entire campus, IT staff members got increasingly annoyed at the lack of security they saw on students' own machines, especially on those owned by freshmen. Rather than send out e-mail messages about configuration strategies, the university simply requires freshmen to bring in their wireless-enabled devices to IT before they first access the network.

"We see every single freshman computer and handheld device," says Marcelo Lew, wireless network specialist for Technology Services. "It's the only way we can make sure everybody has up-to-date patches, a firewall that's turned on, and other security measures."

The tactic takes time, Lew admits, but it has proven to prevent problems for the rest of the year. Also, most students retain the settings throughout their journey from freshman to senior, meaning that one time-consuming check actually saves IT time in the long run.

The pace of technology, rather than specific devices, is what's being examined at the University of Tennessee, which implemented wireless four years ago, earlier than many other schools. IT leaders there are trying to create a strategy that can incorporate older laptops into the mix. …

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