Slaying Security Dragons

Security vulnerabilities higher ed must face

J'e St. SauverJ'e St Sauver is the director of User Services and Network Applications at the University of Oregon Computing Center, where he and his staff are responsible for supporting academic users of UO’s large shared systems, as well as PCs, Macs, and Linux/Unix systems. St Sauver is a senior technical advisor for the Messaging Anti-Abuse Working Group, and also co-chairs the Educause Security Effective Practices Working Group. He is a member of the Internet2 (I2) SALSA working group, the I2 End-to-End Performance Initiative (E2Epi) Technical Advisory Group, and the I2 Abilene Network Technical Advisory Committee. St Sauver frequently speaks and writes on computing and networkingrelated topics. Here, he gives CT his own take on the 10 most vulnerable areas for IT security in higher education.

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Passwords: Are we really continuing to use passwords alone, in 2006?

  • There are other options like hardware crypto tokens. Some say they’re too costly.
  • We create, distribute, and reset passwords just to see them lost, forgotten, or compromised.
  • There’s a lot of denial about the scope of password-related security problems.

What about non-encrypted traffic?

  • We still have unencrypted legacy protocols like FTP (file transfer protocol) running in the clear, including over wireless networks.
  • And no, WEP (wired equivalent privacy) d'es not constitute “encryption” for wireless nets!

Look at backups—or the lack thereof.

  • Poll a dozen people: When did they last back up their laptop or desktop?
  • It’s a good bet that the few who could give you an answer aren’t doing a full backup or storing their backups securely.

Outdated, impossible-to-secure systems are still on the wire.

  • Versions of Windows earlier than XP aren’t safe to expose to the Internet.
  • Few institutions have effective hardware and software asset tracking in place, so you probably don’t even know where these ancient systems lie.

Watch persistent, long-term vulnerabilities in mainstream applications.

  • Check for the mainstream applications used on campus.
  • Given the known vulnerabilities you may (be horrified to) uncover, you’ll want to make your software recommendations very clear to users.

Is malware not detected by mainstream antivirus/antispyware software?

  • Signature-based antivirus software is not keeping up with malware’s pace.
  • Heads up! Be ready for rootkits that hide malware from detection and eradication efforts.

Deal with denial of service attacks.


Face the insider threat.

  • Do you have personnel processes that can avoid risky hires in the first place?
  • …And controls to detect potential insider abuses?

Monitor IT security threats on non-enterprise networks (e.g., SCADA systems).

  • Don’t forget systems that control the physical plant or building access, or do process control for instrumentation and other dedicated services.
  • They’re often not as disconnected from the Internet as you might think.

Beware of overreaction—or underreaction—to IT security threats.

  • With a constant stream of new threats, it’s easy to fall into a siege mentality, resulting in absurd proposals such as “Install another layer of firewalls!”
  • A better response would be more IT security staff in the trenches.
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