Yale wages war on computer viruses

While Yale has become increasingly dependent on computers and the Internet, viruses have grown more and more insidious and can potentially cripple computer systems throughout campus. No time has that been more evident than during last week’s “Romeo and Juliet” outbreak, which infected hundreds of student computers with an self-disguising bug that automatically propagates, sending itself to every user in Microsoft Outlook’s address book. Incidentally, Information Technology Services announced last week that students and faculty are now licensed to use Norton Antivirus software, which is available for free download on University servers.

But that measure is a half step. The decision to offer desktop scanning software, which protects personal computers from incoming viruses, was a no-brainer. But information security needs to be more comprehensive. The answer is a server-based scanning program that can detect viruses on incoming and outgoing e-mail traffic travelling across University servers.

Such server-based software would no doubt come at a price as Yale must license it separately on eight primary and relay servers. But as prices drop below $100,000 for the various packages, the University should move forward and invest in the technology in preparation for academic year 2001-2002. Supplementing desktop-based scanning, the program would buttress Yale’s anti-virus efforts significantly.

Yale’s servers are due for upgrade, and purchasing machines powerful enough to handle such extensive scanning should be part of ITS’ strategy. The University should immediately back the effort financially — with resources coming from all of Yale’s schools, as took place with the Norton Antivirus purchase.

Server-scanning software is not a panacea. Viruses travel in through a number of outlets, including floppy disks and World-Wide-Web-downloads. Students should avoid downloads from unknown or untrusted sources. As September’s “I love you” virus made clear, computer infections are often spread so rapidly that anti-virus software cannot keep pace. Virus fixes are sometimes done best manually; but such an operation can involve handling extremely sensitive system files. ITS can do its part by informing the Yale community and responding quickly, as it did when faced with the Romeo and Juliet outbreak.

By responding quickly and decisively to the Romeo and Juliet threat, Yale has shown that it takes the threat of computer viruses seriously. But there is more work to be done. When it comes to information and technology security Yale should take the rational, comprehensive and altogether inexpensive approach that could save the University a lot of trouble.

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