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Fall 2002
Volume 39, No. 1
Issue Home

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PCMOnline Editor: Sarah Dolinar


The Dark Side of the Web

Web-borne viruses, bandwith hogs and cyberharassment are just a few of the sticky ethical and security issues raised by the dark side of the Web.

The Pomona senior was looking for a gift for his father, and he knew exactly where to look for it—on his own computer, connected to the World Wide Web.

“There’s someone on the network—I know his user name but not who it is—and 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, “it’s not songs that are being pulled around,” the senior said. “It’s movies and TV shows.”

Power corrupts, and a high-speed data network corrupts absolutely. The computers that underpin Pomona’s daily life have enough oomph to store and send huge quantities of information. That’s good if you’re interested in, say, data mining. It’s also good if you want copies of your favorite entertainment, since it’s just software, after all. It’s even better if you’re a hacker who’s built a computer virus to see what’ll 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.” Pomona’s 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 Pomona’s 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 data—the 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 threats—besides 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 doesn’t always happen before an attack comes. The servers with updated patches had no problem fending off Code Red; those that didn’t went down.

ITS figures Code Red got in via a dorm machine. Since then they’ve acquired a site license for anti-virus software—campus servers will update their anti-viral vaccinations at least once a day. “When you connect to the network, you’ll attach to the server where those updated files are and, if you haven’t updated, it automatically updates your client,” says Ken Pflueger, executive director of ITS. “The other thing we’re working on this summer is putting in a firewall between the campus and the rest of the world. That’ll give us more control over access from the outside to machines on campus, and do a better job of monitoring what’s going on off campus.”

The anonymity of the Net has also contributed to a handful of harassment cases on campus. “It’s mostly been e-mail messages,” says Pflueger. “In that environment, it’s sometimes particularly difficult, especially if the person is masking who they are.” That’s an easy trick—free 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. They’re 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.” Pomona’s pending wireless network may fix that problem, but it won’t change the fact that fewer students want to move off campus their senior year—the 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 can’t treat it much differently than they would a fake ID, or underage drinking.

That Pomona senior understands those old rules; he just isn’t sure they’re relevant. “I don’t 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.