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Dartmouth Research Program To Test Security on Campus Wireless Networks

A team of Dartmouth researchers is preparing to launch a project that examines the campus wireless computer traffic in an effort to learn how the network is used and how to best maintain its security. The project is called the Dartmouth Internet Security Testbed, or DIST.

"Our campus environment is the perfect place for this project because we can examine live network activity at scale and in real time," said David Kotz, professor of computer science and the principal investigator on the DIST initiative. "We've worked in laboratory settings with controlled parameters; now it's time for a live, real-world test. For organizations that depend on their wireless networks, like we do, this research should prove invaluable." Kotz is working closely with Dartmouth's Peter Kiewit Computing Services Department.

DIST will develop and evaluate current sensing methods for monitoring the multiple wireless networks at Dartmouth to gather real-time data. The researchers will be deploying DIST wireless monitors that resemble the access points already in place to deliver wireless Internet access. The school said both the Kiewit access points and the DIST wireless monitors are Aruba AP70s, and they differ only in the way they are deployed. Aside from small physical differences, the primary difference is that the DIST devices will be running software created by the researchers to monitor wireless network traffic. Researchers said they hope to learn how to quickly discover patterns that may indicate malicious activity and determine the best way to resolve those situations. For example, DIST may help detect unauthorized access points, which can be used to steal users' passwords.

The project is funded by the Department of Homeland Security, through Dartmouth's Institute for Security Technology Studies. In addition to developing and testing technology, DIST will serve as a model for how other enterprises can secure their wireless networks.

In a statement, the school said its researchers carefully designed the studies to protect the privacy of all campus network users. Data will be collected in a way that makes it anonymous, where the user is never identified or associated with his or her network activity.

Also, the researchers won't examine the content of wireless network traffic; they'll see "headers," the information that distinguishes packets of data from a request to connect to the wireless network. The headers indicate the size and origin of the data (a laptop or access point), but not the type of data or anything about the contents of the communication. The identity of the individual wireless device is replaced by a random identifier. The researchers also record the specific wireless network being used, Dartmouth Secure, Dartmouth Public, or Dartmouth Library.

"Privacy is paramount in this research effort," says Kotz. "We've ensured that strict processes are in place to monitor the project to protect the privacy of our wi-fi users."

Technicians will be installing DIST equipment in residence halls, a school of engineering, and a school of business. Signage will be posted to alert WiFi users to the project.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal and Campus Technology. She can be reached at dian@dischaffhauser.com or on Twitter @schaffhauser.

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