Biowarfare Hits the Dorms

By Emily Gold Boutilier / November / December 2003
June 21st, 2007
Students moving into dorms this semester arrived with more than just carloads of clothes and bedding. They also brought along serious computer worms and viruses that spread quickly around campus, slowing down the entire Brown network and causing two brief outages.

In late August, the SoBig viruses and the Blaster and Welchia worms invaded computers worldwide, including many hooked in at Brown. At the time, students were just arriving for the fall semester, many bringing with them new computers that were missing the protection of the latest Windows updates and virus definitions, says Connie Sadler, director of information technology security at Brown.

When some students tried to retrieve antiviral software from the Brown network, Sadler adds, the tactic backfired: their computers were infected within about thirty seconds of connecting.

In response, Computing and Information Services dispatched an army of staff to dormitories and other locations to hand out thousands of CDs with the necessary Windows update and antiviral software. CIS also implemented firewall filters, Sadler says, ensuring that when one dorm was hit particularly hard, the problems wouldn’t spread to other residence halls. Such moves helped prevent Brown from experiencing the extended residential network shutdown that some other universities did. Still, Sadler says, the crisis cost her department at least $60,000, thanks mostly to the extra hours that student employees and staff members devoted to fixing the problem.

In the midst of the outbreaks, Ellen Waite-Franzen, vice president of CIS, talked to a New York Times reporter about the hazards underlying the freedom of the Internet. “It’s been this nice electronic playground,” she said, “but you can’t help starting to wonder if maybe all this connection is not so great. Now it feels like a war zone.”

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November / December 2003