Going rogue: IT officials fight student-run web networks

A University of Iowa security audit revealed rogue web connections across campus.
A University of Iowa security audit revealed rogue web connections across campus.

Campus technology officials say there’s only one surefire way to stop students from creating their own wireless internet connections in dormitories and creating a security risk for computer users: provide reliable wireless access across campus.

Unauthorized, or “rogue,” wireless networks cropped up on college campuses of every size in the mid-2000s, IT chiefs say, as students became impatient with little or no wireless connection in their dorms.

Many campuses only had wireless connections in libraries, leaving students to plug into the internet when studying in dormitories.

Student-run networks posed a security threat for unsuspecting students who would unknowingly access their neighbor’s web connection. The student’s computer instantly became vulnerable to viruses and malware, because most dorm networks lacked basic security safeguards.

In interviews with eCampus News, higher-education IT officials said even after campus-run wireless networks have become available in most dorms, rogue connections persist.

And some unauthorized network managers—who only need a wireless router from an electronics store—give their connection the same name as the university’s network, leaving students confused and susceptible to viruses that could bog down web connections or damage a laptop’s hardware and software.

But campus decision makers agreed that a strong wireless signal is the key to ridding colleges of rogue networks.

“I would say the more wireless we had, the fewer and fewer students tried to create their own networks,” said Patrick Gemme, technical services engineer at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., where technology staff members have cracked down on rogue wireless connections emanating from dorm rooms.

Gemme said that during the 2006-07 school year, Holy Cross IT specialists agreed the campus’s computer infrastructure was unable to find rogue network connections and eliminate them.

The campus switched to a wireless network management program from Aruba Networks, and Gemme said university staff now can locate student-enabled internet connections that could pose a serious threat to the thousands of computers used on Holy Cross’s campus every day.

“We can kill the rogues with just a click of the button when we see them,” he said. “It’s been pretty easy to deal with since then.”

Rogue networks also put students’ personal information at risk, said Les Lloyd, chief information officer at Saint Leo University in Tampa, Fla. If a student logs on to a rogue connection, the network manager can access private information kept on the machine’s hard drive, including phone numbers, addresses, and financial information.

Rogue network operators “can trap that traffic and kind of spy on people,” said Bill Francis, director of information technology services at Grinnell College in Iowa.

Lloyd said his IT staff see a surge in unauthorized web connections in the first few weeks when students return from summer or winter breaks.

“It takes a lot of time at the beginning of the semester [to police rogue networks], because that’s when we find them,” he said, adding: “We know that this can really harm the infrastructure.”

Technology chiefs usually can find rogue internet connections by scanning dormitories for abnormal frequencies—a technique that can zero in on an unauthorized network within a few yards.

Students can dodge their campus’s IT authorities by turning off their dorm router when they’re done using the internet, eliminating the frequency that officials track down.

The University of Iowa conducted an IT security audit in August 2006 that found 80 rogue networks run by students and faculty members on campus, as first reported by the De Moines Register. The university used “sniffers” that searched for telltale signs of rogue connections and showed which computers they originated from.

Iowa’s wireless network only covered about 15 percent of the campus in 2006, leaving students and professors without instant internet access unless they installed their own routers in dorm rooms and offices.

In the three and a half years since Iowa’s rogue wireless audit, wireless access has become commonplace across campus.

Francis said students found with unauthorized networks “never had any ill intent,” but simply craved uninterrupted internet access that wasn’t available until recently, when the 1,500-student college had campus-wide wireless access installed.

“It wasn’t a huge problem, but we had to find out where those points are,” Francis said. “We knew bad things could happen … and we saw that it was not a fad.”

Francis said Grinnell’s IT staff used a Cisco solution to send out signals that jammed rogue connections. Adding password security, he said, was another layer of protection that made students and faculty log on to Grinnell’s network instead of connecting with any nearby signal.

“Since then, I haven’t really thought about rogue [connections] all that much,” he said.

Chris Stave, system administrator at Drew University in Madison, N.J., said password protection was a simple solution that let students know they were accessing the campus web connection—and not a rogue network down the hall.

Before wireless internet access was available across the Drew campus, Stave said, technology staff members “didn’t allow it, but didn’t stop it.”

“We knew that if we stopped them, we couldn’t provide that kind of wireless coverage [at the time],” he said. “But now, people aren’t even bothering to set up wireless routers, because it’s no longer a problem they need to solve.”


Grinnell College

Drew University

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