Security on Campus: An Interview with Jeffrey I. Schiller
Those charged with security on campus face many challengesproviding appropriate
levels of security, chosing security technology that can be widely deployed
in a timely manner, and getting acceptance from ordinary users. Syllabus talked
with Jeff Schiller, MITs network manager and a security architect for
the schools Information Technology Architecture Group (ITAG) to gain some
insights about the negative deliverablesecurity.
S: What has been the most important security development in higher education
over the past five years?
JS: The most important thing is not so much security per se, but the context.
Five years ago, personal computers were used, for the most part, for word processing.
Now, the Internet and personal computers have become ubiquitous. We dont
talk about whether someone has a computer; we ask how many they have. They are
common tools, like pens and pencils. Weve become a community that is very
much computer-focused. And then we have the Internet to tie all of this together.
But the same Internet that might tie my computer to my colleagues computers
and to your computer, also might allow my computer to be touched by people who
have less than pure motives. So in some sense I think the biggest thing for
security in the last five years is the increased vulnerability that weve
had because we are so much more connected. Providing security becomes that much
more important because were that much more connected.
S: Discussions about security seem to center around authentication or authorization.
Is there a difference between authentication and authorization?
JS: Very much so. Authentication is proving that you are who you claim to
be. Authorization is demonstrating that you have a right to do something that
you wish to do. In the case of, say, looking at a student record, I might have
authorization. Where authentication and authorization get tied together, is
that we often grant authorization only to an identified individual. So, for
example, if we have a studentJohn D'eand Im his advisor, there
will be an authorization list that says Jeff Schiller is authorized to look
at the academic records of John D'e. Then, I have to authenticate myself to
prove to the system that this is indeed Jeff Schiller. There are also cases
when we have authorization separated from authentication. For example, in order
to ride the subway, at least here in Massachusetts, I have a token. And you
know, the subway system could care less whether Im John D'e, Jeff Schiller,
or Bill Clinton. If I have that token, I get to go on the train. So, authorization
can actually happen in the absence of authentication.
S: What kind of authentication is appropriate for campus networks, or for
JS: Well, it really depends on what information somebody might get access
to, or be able to modify. For example, if I indicate to my portal what class
year Im in so that it could show me what courses were relevant to me,
or what parties I might want to attend, then a rudimentary level of authentication
would probably be quite acceptable. On the other hand, if the portal allowed
me to look at my grades, modify my term address, or update my biographical information,
we would have a situation where if our authentication werent strong, wed
risk one student claiming to be another student, for whatever reason, and creating
an embarrassing situation.
S: Are there guidelines or universally accepted conventions for the types
of security systems one might deploy on campus?
JS: When it comes to student records, we do have laws like the Family Educational
Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) that basically states that schools really do
have to make an effort to protect student records. An interesting question is,
when you do deal with sensitive records, what is really good enough for authentication?
There is no rule that says thou shalt use digital certificates.
There is no rule that says thou shalt use a user name and password.
Theres not even a rule that says that when you send a user name and password
over the network you should encrypt it. But I can certainly tell you at many
universities people are running what we call snifferseavesdropping deviceson
the network, and if you send a password over the network without encrypting
it, it will be stolen. So we have to make a tradeoff between perfect security
versus the cost of providing it and the convenience, or lack thereof, of using
it. But the very first thing youve got to look at is the level of sensitivity
thats associated with granting access.
S: So, on a campus, who makes the decisions about levels of security?
JS: I think one of the things you run into when you get into higher education
is decentralization. For example, the CIO of the university, or the head of
the IS department, or the associate provost can set policies on how central
administration handles data. But theres always the challenge of what happens
in individual departments, particularly when youre dealing with student
records. After all, grades are ultimately collated by faculty at the end of
the term. Before they turn that information over to the registrar, they more
or less get to control its level of security. I think one of the challenges
we face in the university is faculty members using very insecure technology
to deal with student records. A classic example is faculty members e-mailing
grades around without the e-mail being protected in any really strong way. So
I think that at the campus level, we try to have a CIO who would like to establish
security policies, but actually getting the policies enforced in a decentralized
environment is very, very difficult.
S: Then is security hard to sell on campus?
JS: I think its hard to sell because many people just dont get
it. I talk to people and say, Arent you worried about somebody reading
that e-mail? And they say, Who would read my e-mail? Or, people
run computers without a password on them, and say, Who would want to use
my computer? So you have to start from the beginning, saying that the
reason that someone might want to use your computer is so they can then use
it to launch attacks on somebody else and it would look like you did it. So
one of the things we have to do for security is not only what I would call technical
securityputting in the technology and all thatbut theres also
a huge educational component that has to go with it.
S: On most campuses, do you expect that you can actually integrate all
the technology to work together to be secure? Take e-mail, for example. Are
the various systems going to be standardized enough to work together?
JS: They say standards are wonderful. Everybody should have one. E-mail turns
out to be one of the hardest and most problematic cases. There are several standards
out there for how to do, for example, encrypted e-mail. The implementations
are green. They dont always talk to each other. But even worse than that
is that the ease of use of the clients is not yet good enough to encourage most
people to use the security features. Right now the technology requires the user
to be a lot more educated on the nuancesyou have to understand public
key cryptography and have a certificate, or a key pairand all these are
terms that people just arent familiar with. What people want is a check
box that says, Make this secure, and we have not yet gotten the
technology down to that level.
S: Are there any good, common, simple security measures?
JS: One of the things that has helped us improve security is Web-based applications.
When they first came out with their browser, Netscape really jumped on the problem
of how to provide a secure way to get from a browser to a server. And of course
you know that today as SSL, the ubiquitous https and that little lock icon.
And so in essence, Web browsers with built-in support for SSL gave us the generic
security-capable desktop client. So I can build a secure application and not
have to worry about getting a program out to everybodys desktop. If they
use their browser, were okay.
S: Whats a good example of that?
JS: One of the things I would like to see is faculty filling out a Web form
put up by the registrars office and entering the data directly into a
Web server through a secure channelthen, that data is really never exposed,
and it is not left laying around on hard drives. Web-based technology gives
us a real opportunity to integrate systems.
S: So you feel that the Web security is fine?
JS: Certainly. But you know, the devil is in the details. With SSL, which
is a standard and widely deployed, it is certainly the case that when you enter,
for example, your credit card information into a secure page and it is sent
over the network, no one is going to be in a position to steal it; however,
once it gets onto the server at the bookstore, or wherever it may go, the question
becomes how well protected that server is. I become nervous when I see a small
shop that isnt very security-savvy set up what they think is a secure
Web sitewell yes, in transit its secure, but do they really understand
security at their database level? If youre a very large organization and
your business depends on the Web, then youre motivated to make it secure.
And it probably will be. But theres probably some gray area in between
those two extremes that a lot of schools would fall into, and their security
could probably be improved.
S: Then there could be problems on either end of a transaction, even when
a secure, standard technology is being used between the two sides?
JS: Yes, and another thing to remember is that security is a negative deliverable.
You dont know when you have it. You only know when youve lost it.
If I have to integrate two systems together, and I dont get my standards
right for the actual data formats, then the systems dont work and thats
obvious to me and I have to fix it. But if I have two systems talking to each
other, but in a totally insecure way, the technology still works. The application
still runs. Everything works like it should until somebody steals the data.
S: Whats going to motivate campuses to provide really good security?
JS: When I sit down in conversation with other people in higher education,
the concern over student records eventually is traced to the FERPA Act, also
known as the Buckley amendment, and so theres a feeling that in order
to meet the legislation, we have to be providing the required level of service.
But some universities also have a very strong sense of privacy and dont
want the privacy of their students compromised; therefore they dont want
student records compromised. I cant say that its universally true
that theres belief in the privacy of students, but certainly its
there in many cases. Theres also the fear of loss of reputation. Nobody
in the IT business wants to be the CIO of the university that gets written up
in the New York Times because they had some breach of privacy.
S: So if reputation is a factor, should good security be one of a potential
students criteria when selecting a college?
JS: Well, let me quote Tom Peters. He said that no one chooses a university
based on the quality of its administration. And I dont think anybody has
ever said to me, Jeff, Im thinking about going to MIT, but Im
really concerned about the security of your administrative systems and whether
theyre good enough. It just d'esnt come up.
S: Are biometrics going to be used soon for normal security in higher education
JS: Biometrics, I think, are farther out than most people think they are.
For example, one of the primary benefits to the user of a biometric authentication
is that you dont have present anything but your body. But the way we see
a lot of biometric systems deployed, you actually have to have an ID card and
you have to look at the iris scanner or use the fingerprint reader. Keep in
mind that today, we have a lot of people just entering a user name and a password
over a secure Web login, and thats working just fine in higher education.
If you say that now, you also have to have a card, never mind the biometric,
thats just going to be a step up in inconvenience. I think eventually
the push for biometrics in higher education will be one to improve user convenience,
which is to say not to require you to memorize a password or carry a card.
By the way, heres a little story. I was talking to a vendor of a fingerprint
reader that was being designed for use on cash machines, and I said to the him,
You know, I dont really want it to be the case that the only thing
you need to get in to my bank account is to have my finger. He got just
what I meant and said, Oh dont worry. The reader can tell whether
the finger is alive or dead. I responded, Thats not the point!
My finger is much more valuable to me than anything in my bank account.
But then he said, Well, you dont have to worry because Ive
explained it to you, so now you know that it wont do any goodso
youre safe. I protested, No, thats not true. You dont
have to convince me that a dead finger d'esnt work. Youve got to
convince the crackhead whose going try to cut my finger off!
S: Whats going to be important for security in the future, say, in
the next five years?
JS: The most important question is about how we can get security technology
more broadly defined, deployed, and accepted. Part of the answer is that weve
got to make the security technology that we develop be user friendly and incrementally
deployable. And what I mean by incrementally deployable is that we have to be
able to roll it out on a per student or per department basis, or maybe on a
per school basis, but we cant create a security technology that nobody
has one day, and the next day, everybody has to have all at once. We call that
a flag day, and you just cant do that. So weve got to
come up with strategies to get security technology incrementally deployed. And
its got to be cost effective. Its hard enough to get students, administrators,
and faculty to understand the value of security. If you assign a very high cost
to it, theyre just going to walk away. So weve got to come up with
easy to use, cost effective, and incrementally deployable technologies. Thats