Is Your District Protected from Botnets?
Most of us are familiar with the damaging consequences of computer viruses such as freezing worms and Trojan horses. Another set of devious hacking forces, however, known as botnets, have caused districts to re-evaluate their online security measures. A botnet is a network of computers controlled remotely by hackers and infected with malware. Unlike other viruses, botnets do not run on autopilot once they gain access. They infiltrate computers, usually via e-mail, and they take advantage of the affected computers' Web browser vulnerabilities while spreading spam and viruses.
According to Christopher Schabel, solutions architect at CDW-G, which provides technology products and support for government and education agencies, computers taken over by a botnet are known as "zombie" computers, and the hacker can then gain access to certain programs or send out spam e-mails.
"It's really an a la carte virus," says Schabel. "It's the hackers' choice to pick and choose what they want to do once on the computer."
For school districts, the implications could be a severe breach of information security. "Once they gain access, at that point they have the keys to the kingdom," says Lenny Schad, chief information officer at Katy (Texas) Independent School District. "They can get into student management software, grading software, our financial system, or any program on that machine. It's really a huge risk."
While Katy ISD has not come under a botnet attack, the district has taken proactive steps to prevent one. "Taking Steps Toward Bot Preparedness," a report by Peyton Engel, technical architect with CDW-G, outlines key steps for districts to take to prevent an attack: install a Windows firewall, disable auto run, break password trusts, consider network compartmentalization, provide the least amount of privilege allowable to users, filter data leaving the network use a proxy server, and monitor DNS queries.
"We're proactive, but we're not bulletproof," says Schad. "I think the single biggest effect [of a botnet attack] would be the loss of the community's confidence in the school system." Schad says that both teachers and students at Katy ISD are taught to be digital citizens and to learn about the risks of not changing passwords and of opening e-mail attachments.