Dark Side of the Web
viruses, bandwith hogs and cyberharassment are just a few of the sticky
ethical and security issues raised by the dark side of the Web.
Pomona senior was looking for a gift for his father, and he knew exactly
where to look for iton his own computer, connected to the World
Theres someone on the networkI know his user name but
not who it isand he has every West Wing episode, the
senior said over root beer on the sun-beaten terrace of the Smith Campus
Center. I burned them onto CDs and sent them home. It took 16.
Other possibilities were episodes of The Simpsons, or a DVD-quality
copy of The Lord of the Rings two months before it came out on video (the
banner across the bottom that kept flashing New Line Promotional
Use Only was kind of a bummer). Two years ago,
college administrators struggled with the notion that students were moving
lots of music around the network. Now, its not songs that
are being pulled around, the senior said. Its movies
and TV shows.
Power corrupts, and a high-speed data network corrupts absolutely. The
computers that underpin Pomonas daily life have enough oomph to
store and send huge quantities of information. Thats good if youre
interested in, say, data mining. Its also good if you want copies
of your favorite entertainment, since its just software, after all.
Its even better if youre a hacker whos built a computer
virus to see whatll happen. The Internet has a dark side.
A couple of years ago, the music file-sharing program Napster swept through
Pomona, as it did most colleges. For music fans, it meant access to nearly
every song ever recorded, with digital quality, for free. It also meant
a clogged outbound data pipe. It was Napster, then Gnutella, whatever
the latest was, says Peg Schultz, Director of Academic and Technical
Services. They seem to come up with something new every six months.
Pomonas network was robust enough to move all those bits of music.
The trouble came when people tried to get out to the wider Internet or
into Pomonas Web. A couple of machines acting as Napster servers
could hog the bandwidth of the entire network. Perhaps more to the point,
all that use meant a higher bill for the College.
The answer came in the form of bandwidth shaping. When
a request comes into a server, it comes into a specific port depending
on the kind of service it is, Schultz says. A port number designates
a specific type of datathe Web typically uses port 80, by convention.
Napster and others tended to use other ports, so we measured those
and the Deans Council decided that traffic at those ports would
get five percent of the total bandwidth, or something close to it.
Web traffic goes unfettered, but heavy loads of mp3s, the format in which
Napster encoded music, get stopped like losers at a nightclub door. Eventually
residence halls will be on a separate network, an effort to separate the
entertainment bandwidth from the academic.
Threats from outside proved even more serious than music piracy. The viruses
of a decade ago have evolved into more pernicious threatsbesides
the occasional hacker cruising the Net looking for systems to crack for
fun or profit, the Web wilds now include multivalent attacks, self-perpetuating
worms that can launch several different kinds of attacks simultaneously,
and denial-of-service attacks that shut down servers by peppering them
with fake queries, the digital version of a phantom doorbell ringer.
Last fall the Code Red worm took a couple of Pomona servers off-line for
a day and a half. Defenses against these malicious programs exist, but
virus writers and virus hunters have a kind of arms race going on. Every
new vulnerability means a mad scramble to create a software patch before
a hacker exploits it. Loading all those patches is literally a full-time
job, and it doesnt always happen before an attack comes. The servers
with updated patches had no problem fending off Code Red; those that didnt
ITS figures Code Red got in via a dorm machine. Since then theyve
acquired a site license for anti-virus softwarecampus servers will
update their anti-viral vaccinations at least once a day. When you
connect to the network, youll attach to the server where those updated
files are and, if you havent updated, it automatically updates your
client, says Ken Pflueger, executive director of ITS. The
other thing were working on this summer is putting in a firewall
between the campus and the rest of the world. Thatll give us more
control over access from the outside to machines on campus, and do a better
job of monitoring whats going on off campus.
The anonymity of the Net has also contributed to a handful of harassment
cases on campus. Its mostly been e-mail messages, says
Pflueger. In that environment, its sometimes particularly
difficult, especially if the person is masking who they are. Thats
an easy trickfree e-mail services such as Hotmail let users choose
their on-screen names, a nearly foolproof way to hide an identity.
More broadly, widespread use of the Internet has called into question
even the fundamental structure of the college campus. Walk into
any college dorm room and you will see a huge, 17-inch monitor on a desk.
The student has no writing space, where they put their keyboards is a
mystery, and where they put their CPUs is a mystery, says Gary Kates,
dean of the College. We never expected or wanted students to spend
a lot of time in their dorm rooms. Theyre places to sleep, chat,
hang out, but you study in a different space. The tethering of the big
computer to the small desk has chained the residential student to the
small room. Pomonas pending wireless network may fix that
problem, but it wont change the fact that fewer students want to
move off campus their senior yearthe free, high-speed Internet connection
is a powerful motivator.
So, vigilance without, vigilance within? When we were talking [at
a faculty meeting] about what technological skills Pomona graduates should
possess, one of those was simply having a better understanding of the
ethical issues around the use of technology, Pflueger says. The
most we can hope for is to make sure they understand the legal implications
and liabilities they have. The college cant treat it much
differently than they would a fake ID, or underage drinking.
That Pomona senior understands those old rules; he just isnt sure
theyre relevant. I dont think it was much of an issue
for students, he says. It was free music.
Adam Rogers 92 is a
reporter for Newsweek
and a frequent contributor to PCM.