[ISN] Keeping Away Digital Demons

From: InfoSec News (isnat_private)
Date: Tue Mar 11 2003 - 22:58:09 PST

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    By Rachael Jackson 
    Staff writer 
    Mar 10, 2003 
    He doesn't have a badge, handcuffs or a neatly pressed uniform, but he
    helps track down criminals operating across the world.
    He works with the FBI and state police, but he's never studied
    criminology. He protects what is dear to you, but chances are you'll
    never meet him face-to-face.
    His name is Gerry Sneeringer and as the Office of Information
    Technology's security officer, it's his job to keep your computer out
    of harm's way by patrolling the university network, keeping hackers
    and viruses out and tracking down e-mail offenders.
    With 30,000 computers on the university network, the campus is more
    vulnerable to attacks and can spread viruses more easily than typical
    computer systems.
    "As long as we've had computers on campus, we've had people trying to
    mess with them," he said.
    The man on the "right" side of the gigabyte said he doesn't really
    feel like an officer, but so far his efforts have kept out hundreds of
    viruses and hackers, helped solve a dozen e-mail harassment cases and
    secured the campus against an unknown number of computing
    Sneeringer plays detective in e-mail harassment cases where
    perpetrators, often ex-boyfriends or girlfriends, send death threats
    and other menacing notices from anonymous computer labs. He traces
    them through the log-in service, which identifies recent users, and
    shares what he learns with police.
    During the summer, 130 faculty and staff systems were hacked into and
    used for unauthorized purposes. Sneeringer cut the number to 10
    incidents between October and December.
    Also last summer, hackers remotely connected to campus computers,
    exploiting users who had not set up Windows passwords as a security
    measure. They copied movies onto university systems, but Sneeringer
    tripped them up when he blocked their access to the computers with a
    Microsoft protective protocol.
    "Over time we learn those techniques," he said, "It's an ongoing war."
    The FBI was not involved in that case, but Sneeringer works with the
    agency in cases that involve large amounts of money and go through
    government computers. When the FBI traces a computer to the
    university, Sneeringer helps them work down the chain to find their
    A large part of the computer security problem on the campus, he said,
    is that students are not installing proper security updates.
    "If the getaway car belonged to someone else, the police would waste a
    lot of time tracking down the wrong car," he said. "The key is being
    aware that the Internet is a dangerous place for a computer to be," he
    said. "It's like walking down a dark street."
    Sneeringer's position was created last summer as universities across
    the country increased preparedness for attacks against computer
    systems. His job is to follow the electronic trail to the original
    offender. Internet criminals, who take advantage of the speed of the
    university network, are often working from Europe or Asia.
    Mostly though, he said he handles small incidents.
    "We've never had a really big, ugly, hairy hacking incident," he said,
    attributing that success to good technology administrators and good
    luck. "We haven't presented a juicy enough target."
    And by constantly securing the network, Sneeringer plans to keep it
    that way.
    Security at universities provides a special paradox, said OIT
    spokeswoman Joan Martinez. "We have to balance open knowledge and
    research with security," she said. Last year Sneeringer led the battle
    against the Klez virus, a rapidly spreading worm that deletes computer
    files on set days of the month. He had to give the order to turn off
    network service to 700 computers, but the virus was contained and the
    network saved.
    Sneeringer, a Riverdale, Md., native, who now lives in Chesapeake
    Beach with his wife and 3-year-old son, came to the campus as a
    computer science undergraduate in 1981. In 1984 he was a student
    employee at the Computer Science Center. He joined the staff of the
    OIT help desk full-time in 1986. In 1989, a year before he graduated,
    he joined a networking group on the campus. From then until last
    summer he worked as a networking engineer, until he became the
    security officer.
    "I've always been the person who's had to help out in terms of
    investigating things. You feel like you're doing some good. If I'm
    doing my job well, we get to the bottom of the situations or prevent
    them from happening."
    His job does involve a "cops and robbers" element, he said, but it's
    much more about security education and holding down the technology
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