In the fall of 2003, colleges and universities nationwide were forced to cut off Internet access to tens of thousands of new and returning students whose computers were infected with viruses and worms. This year, move-in day at schools across the Washington region was a relative non-event, thanks in large part to stringent new security precautions that helped quarantine infected PCs before they even had a chance to spread their disease.
A year ago, George Mason University shut down its entire student computer network for more than 48 hours after roughly a third of its residents' PCs were sickened with one or more viruses. Student computers that lacked the latest Microsoft patches were infected within seconds of getting online, slowing campus networks to a halt as infected machines sought out new targets.
This year so far marks a huge improvement. Of the 3,150 student residents who registered computers on the Fairfax, Va.-based school's network over the past two weeks, only 47 had trouble with viruses, worms, spyware or other digital detritus, said Anne Agee, GMU's deputy chief information officer.
Granted, schools this year did not have to contend with a massive outbreak of Internet worms like "Blaster" and "Welchia," which surfaced just days before most students reported for the 2003-2004 academic year. But many schools like GMU recently redesigned their computer networks to require that student PCs download the latest Microsoft security patches and antivirus updates before they are allowed online.
GMU also hired a number of students as resident technicians -- or "restechs" -- to live in the dorms and help students get connected and stay safe online. The students are expected to work about 10 hours each week, and are paid roughly $3,000 a year, which just about covers their room and board at Mason for the entire school year.
"There has been a major push this fall by higher-ed institutions to establish minimum requirements for connecting to their networks and using automated tools for security enforcement," said Rodney Petersen, security task force coordinator at EDUCAUSE, a nonprofit that provides computer training and support for 1,900 colleges, universities, and education organizations. "That, combined with the lack of a major incident or virus outbreak is what really has made the fall semester transition go as smoothly as it did."
Dozens of students interviewed at GMU said getting their PCs set up on the school's network couldn't have been easier; most said restechs arrived to help them set up their PCs within minutes of moving in. But many GMU residents, like 18-year-old freshman Sarah Seeds of Richmond, were upset that they had to uninstall the antivirus program they had just purchased in order to use the school's own mandatory antivirus product.
Agee said the school had sent out e-mails during the summer with instructions for downloading Norton Antivirus Corporate Edition, which is provided free for students.
Chris Hall, a 21-year-old Mason senior and one of 17 restechs at the school this year, said the school was aided by the fact that most students arrived with brand new PCs. Hall added that in a departure from past semesters, the majority of problems this year came from upperclassmen whose older computers were already infested with viruses, PC-crippling spyware and adware programs.
The University of Virginia hired dozens of student residents to serve as year-round computer technicians, and developed a system for isolating infected and vulnerable student PCs from the rest of the school's network.