Last April, the FBI raided the administrative services center of Arizona's Deer Valley Unified School District, looking for music MP3s and DVD movies downloaded illegally over the Internet. Agents arrived at 6 a.m., blocked the offices from the public, and pored through online records and data for most of the day.
This action came as the federal justice department launched a new intellectual property task force to step up copyright enforcement, and the district was among sites in several states served with warrants. Deer Valley Public Information Officer Timothy Tait said he thought the bureau was "looking at actions of individuals, as opposed to the operations of the district."
The Underground Internet
When the Recording Industry Association of America first clamped down on online file swappers who exchange copyrighted media using services such as Kazaa and Gnutella at home and in school, they sued hundreds of violators, at least one as young as 12. Millions of files were being swapped openly using the file-sharing networks, and participants could easily be identified and their activities traced.
But now file-swapping on the Internet has gone underground, with the development of secure members-only, by-invitation, password-controlled secret networks known as "darknets." These locations are where files are transferred in encrypted form. (Microsoft engineers coined the term in a paper titled The Darknet and the Future of Content Distribution.) A darknet typically consists of a small group of friends who band together to share information hidden from public view. This defeats current attempts to stop the trading of copyright-protected work, so darknets operate with little fear of detection by online robots. A darknet may already be set up in your schools.
Darknets are initiated using software purchased or downloaded free over the Internet, such as Direct Connect, Freenet, Groove or Waste. Participants then swap passwords and digital keys for exchanging data using encryption similar to that of online credit-card transactions. Users may be part of several darknets, and joining requires an invitation from a member who supplies the password and the small digital key file. Darknets are therefore even more secure than local intranets, and can also be quickly set up and taken down.
But though the term may have sinister connotations, darknets also have great positive potential in sending sensitive information across the Internet such as student and personnel records. For example, GlaxoSmithKline established a darknet to allow its scientists to communicate with researchers at several universities in developing a new obesity drug. Furthermore, the privacy of darknets can circumvent many of the problems that plague the Internet, including viruses, worms, phishing schemes, identity theft and spam.
Darknets in Districts
Darknets are popping up everywhere, and present new opportunities and supervision challenges for districts. Here are three ways districts are addressing the issue of unauthorized trading.
"I spend a large portion of my time monitoring the network for overall usage and this sort of traffic, since swapping music and video can totally consume bandwidth," says Brad Martin, an administrator at Technology & Innovation in Education that services schools in South Dakota.
In Arkansas, Gary Day, director of technology in Rogers School District, says, "We basically block all online services except those we specifically allow."
Don Benton, director of technology at Arkansas's Hot Springs school district relies on student assistants to help monitor appropriate usage. Still, most educators know little or nothing about darknets, so use the resources below to make sure your staff is informed about what might be happening on your network.
Odvard Egil Dyrli, firstname.lastname@example.org, is senior editor and emeritus professor of education at the University of Connecticut.