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Professional Opinion

The IT Administrator’s Ever-Changing Role

In addition to securing networks, they work to keep students safe.

Going back to school means something completely different to today’s IT administrators.

I remember when IT administrators were primarily called upon to help fix projectors or update the school’s handful of computers, which were mostly used by school staff. Now the IT administrators I talk to have a long list of additional responsibilities that last throughout the year, including working with local police regarding Internet safety for kids, securing networks against malicious attacks, and ensuring students have online access to what they need for school while preventing encounters with content that’s potentially harmful to their young minds.

Students have had all summer to ramp up their Twitter feeds and build up their Facebook profiles and their YouTube playlists; they aren’t about to stop just because school is in session. Ninety-six percent of students aged 9-17 with Internet access use social networking tools, according to the National School Boards Association and Grunwald Associates, and 42 percent have said they post personal contact information online, according to the Polly Klaas Foundation. This, coupled with the fact that there are tens of thousands of registered sex offenders lurking on these sites, means trouble. Beyond worrying about outside forces getting in, IT teams have to worry about students’ ability to outwit many of today’s security applications.

IT’s Major Issues

Here are three major issues of concern as IT teams take on the new school year.

  • Content management and filtering. This means blocking inappropriate or bandwidth-hogging sites and keeping them blocked. I am seeing more and more parents hold schools responsible for the content students can access at school. Government regulations are following.
  • Cyberbullying. Kids picking on each other online has proven to have serious, even fatal, consequences. IT managers need to deploy administrative measures to ensure certain social media tools aren’t accessible during school hours.
  • Web proxy blocking. Most URL filters only block 30 percent of the sites with potentially harmful content and applications. Also, many tech-savvy students have figured out ways to bypass this measure. IT administrators clearly need more effective solutions.

How to Prepare

Web security is a constantly evolving challenge, and although there will never be one silver bullet to solve all security woes, there are many advanced solutions today that when combined can provide peace of mind to school CIOs.

I recommend two broad strategies. First, make it a priority to create a comprehensive approach—one that combines not only unified IT security but education and outreach. Work with students, faculty and staff members to ensure everyone understands the potential threats associated with acceptable use policies that are not enforced.

Second, reduce liability by integrating security tools that defend your school’s network and users, including implementing a Web proxy blocking tool that does not exclude pertinent Web content yet creates an impenetrable barrier against savvy students who have learned all the tricks. Simple URL filters aren’t enough and create a false sense of security.

Schools need a solution that can enforce acceptable use policies by identifying and immediately blocking inappropriate behavior while facilitating the flow of good traffic and content to ensure educational requirements are still met. The solution should be comprehensive and include the ability to monitor and take action on online content and applications in real time. This means the blocking of broad Web proxy variations, URLs with inappropriate content, peer-to-peer file sharing downloads, online chats and gaming, along with spyware, viruses and worms.

IT security threats will continue to change as the Web and students’ use of the Web evolves. It is important to constantly evaluate technology solutions to ensure they are keeping up with the times by blocking new and developing threats. It’s also in our best interest to work with schools to ensure they remain focused on the one common goal—education.

Shawn Eldridge is vice president of marketing and products for network security provider DeepNines and has 16 years of experience in the Internet security industry. He has worked for leading organizations focused on network and e-mail security, compliance, phishing, spoofing and Web threats.