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The attack of the killer dorm virus

By Andrew J. Pulskamp

Students who live in dorms are used to dealing with the ever-present colds and flu but they may not be as accustomed to another infectious strain alive and well in university housing - computer viruses. Some dorm dwellers are seeing their potent PC's infected as careless roommates or strangers from down the hall meddle with their bytes and pieces.

Brian Conant, a senior at Illinois State University, has had firsthand experience with cyber viruses in university housing. "My freshman year I bought a computer and brought it to the dorms. I had a roommate who was doing a little more on it than what I was. He would go to a lot of sites that I wouldn't go to and he was sending and receiving a lot of email that got all mixed up. I got a virus on it and eventually I got a new computer," he says.

If sweaty dorm rats don't think anything of plopping down on your newly washed sheets, what's to stop them from booting up your brand new machine?

According to USA Today, there are 200 new computer viruses or worms developed monthly by ne'er-do-well computer hackers. With a constant influx of malicious programming going on, Gary Flynn, a security engineer at James Madison University, witnesses the toll it takes on computer-owning scholars. He says, "Students coming in with viruses is a fairly common occurrence. We see more of it than we did a couple of years ago."

Part of the problem is fueled by collegians who don't password-protect their precious PC's. By failing to observe such safeguards, they leave a door open for hordes of inconsiderate users. If sweaty dorm rats don't think anything of plopping down on your newly washed sheets, what's to stop them from booting up your brand new machine?

Conant can identify with such inconsiderate users. "You really have to be aware of who is using your computer. Communal mentality rules in the dorms. When I bought my first computer it was a big investment and it was a big deal to me. But the people who use it aren't going to be aware of the investment the same way you are."

Todd Paustian, the programmer analyst senior at the University of Wyoming, thinks there are other factors besides oafish roommates that can lead to dorm computers being victimized by outside attacks. "[Dorm computers] are a little bit more open in the fact that they're always connected to a network." Around the clock access to the Internet is a big plus in the eyes of many university students, but it also provides a greater window of opportunity for malevolent cyber invaders.

There's even a specific type of virus out there that is especially adept at infecting dormers who are logged onto a local network. Flynn says, "Dorms are a little bit more vulnerable to stuff like remote control Trojans," which allow an invading user to control computers from another location. An infected hard drive can leave the owner out of the loop -- and out of control.

"Most people download something from an unknown source and they have no idea what it does. It might have a nice picture but in the background it can be downloading a remote Trojan. The virus could allow someone to do anything they want with your computer without your knowledge. They could see all your information -- see all files, capture all key words," warns Flynn.

At Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia, the school employs a computer savvy strategy that leads to an aggressive handling of viral dorm denizens.

"The virus could allow someone to do anything they want with your computer without your knowledge. They could see all your information -- see all files, capture all key words."

James Madison University security engineer

The school is one of the more computer progressive institutions in the country. Students receive their very own computer upon entry into the school, which they also get to keep after they graduate. In addition, each dormitory on the campus has a computer dorm assistant or CDA, who serves numerous technical related functions for all college enrollees.

Lisa Wentz is a student at Wesleyan as well as being a CDA. In fact, Wentz is in charge of the program at the school. She explains, "Well actually a CDA does a little bit of everything from fixing computers to serving as an administrator liaison between the students and the network."

Most schools don't have such well-developed computer programs. Wentz concurs, saying, "I know at most colleges you're given a first-year computer requirement you have to meet. Then you're on your own. You have to buy your own computer yourself, you have to set it up yourself and you have to maintain it yourself."

Such programs can leave students high and dry. Uneducated PC operators are more susceptible to cyber attacks. Wentz believes her school's overall computer philosophy has an impact on the number of viruses that pop up, saying, "We don't see too many viruses. ...And anytime, 24 hours a-day, the students have onsite computer maintenance right on their floor. And when we fix [a problem], we actually teach them how to fix it themselves so they can learn what's going on."

The kinds of problematic and inconsiderate culprits behind Conant's viral troubles are also eliminated at the school. Everybody has their own computer resources, so there's no reason for students to use or abuse roommates' machines.

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