By Erin Stewart
Deseret Morning News
November 28, 2006
Utah's universities are working to protect students' personal
information, but some schools need to get their policies up to date to
block hackers and comply with federal law, according to a report
obtained by the Deseret Morning News.
The first comprehensive information technology audit for the state
system of nine public colleges and universities reveals a need for more
formalized security policies to protect private information ranging from
Social Security numbers to health data.
"Because of the open nature of universities, they've generally been a
little bit more at risk. They can't be as open as they used to," said
Steve Hess, chief information officer for Utah's System of Higher
Education, who spearheaded the report.
Without clear security policies, Hess said, Utah's schools could be
vulnerable to hackers and at risk for violation of the federal Family
Educational Rights and Privacy Act, which bars colleges from releasing
student records that include personally identifiable information.
While Hess said there were no glaring gaps in the networks of most Utah
schools, there is a need for better training of certified security
officers and more streamlined policies on how to monitor the system's
Currently, some schools rely on uncertified operations staff to perform
security functions, the report said.
The audit recommends a systemwide update of each school's information
technology policy to include at least 19 protocols such as how to report
security breaches and acceptable use of technology. While most schools
have security procedures in place, Hess said, many have not concretely
included them in the school's information technology policy.
In particular, a majority of Utah institutions did not have clear
policies controlling student identifiers in place of Social Security
numbers and personnel clearances. About half of the schools did not have
formal policies on security monitoring and enforcement.
The audit does not specify which universities are lacking formal
"They're just catching up to get those policies updated. That doesn't
mean that they don't have them, they just need to get them into their
policy," Hess said. "Everybody who has a desktop is at potential for
some breach in security; a policy just lays down the law of the land."
Since Sept. 11, 2001, Hess said, universities across the nation have
been re-evaluating their security processes, fueled by the fear that a
terrorist hack could rob students of their identities and schools of
Hurricane Katrina also spurred technology gurus to better protect school
servers after many schools in the Gulf region had to shut down because
the information needed to run the school was not backed up.
Weber State University and the University of Utah both received wake-up
calls in the past five years as hackers broke into financial aid files
at WSU in 2004 and into a former-employee database at the U. a year
later. Leaders at both schools don't believe any identity theft occurred
as a result of the hackings, but WSU chief information officer Don
Gardner said it was an eye-opener.
"We're very concerned about student personal data. We have an obligation
to protect personal information, and we want to make sure that that
happens," Gardner said. "We also want to make sure that our network and
computing resources are not misused by people who would like to use them
to do illegal things."
At WSU, Gardner said that since the school's hacking scare, a security
consultant has helped the school hire a certified security officer and
update its policies. School leaders also beefed up their intrusion
detection and began a system of continual network monitoring.
"Obviously when you do that you're going to find there are some
weaknesses, but in general we found that we were not in terrible shape,"
he said. "We've really tightened things down in a number of different
To better protect the databases of Utah's institutions, higher education
leaders will also ask the state Legislature for roughly $1 million to
back up all of the information at the state's backup site in Richfield.
That backup site moves the information away from earthquake dangers
along the Wasatch Front and would allow schools to continue operating
after a natural disaster.
What the security audit recommends for colleges
* All institutions will have information technology security plans.
* All institutions will change their IT security policies to include a
list of 19 major protocols.
* Each campus will designate an IT security director who has been
trained and certified.
* Institutions will establish a disaster recovery and system backup site
in the existing Richfield data center.
* All institutions will participate in organized security initiatives.
* The System of Higher Education Security Committee will draft a best
practice security process for dealing with security incidents.
* IT security policies should include restrictions on the storage of
Social Security numbers and other private information on computers.
* The chief information officer will organize security audit teams and
will audit the security policy of each institution at least annually.
Copyright 2006 Deseret News Publishing Company
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