U technicians set up stations to help debug students’ computers

Neil Munshi

In an era of high-speed downloading and fast-paced file sharing, in which students can get nearly any program, song, movie or TV show they want, many people are also picking up annoying bugs designed to slow down their computer systems.

To help stop this growing problem on campus, University technicians have been running “computer inoculation stations” in residence halls during the past three weeks to help students with their computer problems.

They secured more than 160 computers and responded to more than 400 requests for help, said Jill Froehlich, Housing and Residential Life information technology assistant director.

“People think they can just pull their computer out of the box and plug it into the network,” Froehlich said. “Perhaps that was OK a year or two ago – it’s no longer OK.”

This year, officials have noticed a significant increase in students who need computer assistance. Requests for help have more than tripled, from 333 in September 2003 to 1,034 last September, Froehlich said.

Technicians from the housing department and 301-HELP, the University’s computer helpline, assisted with the computer help stations.

Froehlich said the housing department held help sessions in 1996, when the residence halls were first equipped with Ethernet, to install hardware on students’ computers.

But this is the first time the department has taken such an active role in securing students’ computers, she said.

Brock Noland, a technician with the housing department, said the program is needed because more people are sharing files on peer-to-peer networks such as LimeWire and Kazaa, in which students can download programs, applications and files for free.

Sometimes, users get more than they want from the programs, he said.

“People who make these broken copies of (programs) so you can steal them insert adware, spyware, viruses, anything they want into that installation,” he said. “So when you download that, you are completely opening up your computer.”

Noland said every student they helped at the stations had a problem with pop-up ads, which was often the direct result of spyware or viruses.

Political science sophomore Meredith Beeson said technicians found more than 30 spyware programs in her computer when she brought it in.

She said her computer had been on its last leg for some time, but she had neglected fixing it.

“It took a really long time to get on top of it, because I didn’t have the time to go to their tech-support place and, obviously, I didn’t have the motivation,” she said. “When they came to the dorms, it really helped out Ö and makes it way more efficient.”

Computer technicians searched for any applications, such as spyware, on students’ computers that had been put there without their knowledge, Noland said.

Spyware is any application installed on a computer without the user’s knowledge. It tracks the user’s Internet habits for various companies, and the spyware creators make money as the application spreads from computer to computer, Noland said. Because some viruses spread quickly, he said, spyware creators are now concealing their wares within highly infectious viruses.

Noland said the problem is social rather than technical.

“A lot more people have computers now, and one of the big problems is that everyone runs Windows,” he said. “And just like in biology, when there’s a monoculture, it’s not very stable, because one thing can wipe out everything.”

To prevent future infection, Noland said, students should regularly update Windows operating systems and consult www.safecomputing.umn.edu, the University’s computer security Web site.

It is important for students to ensure their computers are secure before plugging them into the University’s network, Noland said. Every time students download for free, it could cost them more in the end, Noland said.

The University offers virus protection on its Web site to students, staff members and faculty members.