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Watch Your Step: College Computer Network Pitfalls

Today’s technology offers students the ability to study at the local coffee house and 24-hour access to the college’s computer network. Colleges expect students to use their networks responsibly. Failure to do so can result in network bans and security breaches.

Warp Speed, Mr. Sulu

Let’s start with the good news. Chances are that your college’s network speed is much faster and more reliable than your home Internet connection. If you’re used to YouTube videos freezing every few seconds, rejoice! Your college network will seem like heaven. Whether you like to stream videos or play online games, you’ll probably notice a real improvement in download rates, video quality and lag times. In return for that speed, however, the college assumes you’ll abide by some restrictions.

Most colleges take a dim view of peer-to-peer (P2P) software like BitTorrent and the like. The use of such software raises all sorts of thorny copyright issues, and many of the files shared on such sites are loaded with malware. Chances are good that your college prohibits the use of these file-sharing software applications, and forbids “open shares” (meaning, essentially, allowing your computer to be accessed randomly by the P2P network without active approval on your part) on computers connected to the network. Shared folders need to be password-protected.

In other words, you’ve got access to amazing bandwidth, but don’t try to use it to download pirated copies of every movie ever made. College IT does track bandwidth use, and such behavior can get you banned from the network.

Public Wi-Fi and Coffee-Shop Studying

Dorm life can get loud, often when you’re trying to finish a major assignment. Or perhaps you just need a change of scenery to get those paper-writing synapses firing. At such times, you might decide to spend the evening at the local coffee shop. After all, a café’s got two things students crave: caffeine and free Wi-Fi.

Public Wi-Fi is vulnerable to malware, key-logging viruses and other tools hackers use to compromise computer security. Public Wi-Fi in or around a college is especially attractive to hackers, as large numbers of people use such systems.

Exercise some caution when connecting to public Wi-Fi systems. Don’t log into any website that requires usernames or passwords, whether it’s the college email system, your online bank or your Facebook account, because you don’t know if someone is listening in on you.

Malware and Security Breaches

College networks offer some of the juiciest targets to hackers outside of big business, government agencies and military systems. A hacker, once in a college system, can access thousands of people’s personal information. Understandably, college IT departments do everything possible to prevent such breaches.

As a student on the network, you’ll be expected to keep your operating system and antivirus programs current with the latest security patches and updates. Frankly, this is a good habit to get into, anyway. You can set both your operating system and antivirus program to check for and install updates automatically, usually in the Preferences or Setting menu found within those applications.

Be aware that online con artists consider students to be easy prey. Many students are young, and may not have the experience needed to spot the signs of phishing scams (phishing is when a hacker attempts to get email passwords or addresses from a user by way of emails or random instant messages, usually posing as a friend or family member). Students also have a reputation for being strapped for cash, which makes them a target for email scams (promising a cash windfall from Nigeria, for example). You can expect to receive a fair amount of spam and scam email through your college email account. Such email may also include malware attachments. Never open an email attachment unless you know where it came from.

Know What’s Allowed

Reading a Terms and Conditions document in its entirety is a good remedy for insomnia, but students should at least read up on acceptable and unacceptable uses for their college’s network. For instance, most colleges forbid use of the network for commercial practices like running a for-profit business, and many prohibit unauthorized use of wireless equipment.

In almost all cases, use of any hardware and software that compromise network security or user privacy is strictly forbidden. Knowing what you can and cannot do helps you use the network effectively without treading on sensitive IT toes.

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