Bradford Persistent Agent Raises Concerns on Campus

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Photo by Tom Keen

Over the summer, the College installed the Bradford Persistent Agent (PA) on campus, an update of the previous program that allows the College to scan students’ computers to ensure that their operating systems and anti-virus and anti-spyware programs are up-to-date.

According to User Support Administrator Lisa Youngborg, a Bradford system has been on campus for five or six years to protect the campus from viruses. According to Network Services Manager Jeff Ranta, the previous Bradford system was a dissolvable agent, that is, it would scan for anti-virus and anti-spyware programs once at the beginning of the year. The PA, however, runs in the back of a network computer and scans for anti-virus and anti-spyware updates once daily. It has the ability to remove a computer from the production network and onto a remediation network if the computer fails the security policy, and will return the computer to the network once the security problem is resolved.

Because it runs in the background of students’ computers, the PA also has the ability to send out a mass message to students in the case of an emergency, such as a tornado, which would allow students to receive notifications even if they were not online.

“If you’re on your machine in your room, a little screen would pop up,” said Ranta.

Despite the fact that an email was sent out before students returned to the College, alerting them to the change, the initial campus reaction was largely one of confusion.

“The first day with the freshmen moving in, [we got] constant calls and a lobby full,” said junior Mica Artis, one of the students on duty at the Help Desk during move-in days.

“We had both bosses helping us and a tech or two,” senior Jarrod Lathrop, who was also on duty, added. “It was still a madhouse that day because we not only had the freshmen but the freshmen and their parents.”

Regarding many of the initial problems, Artis said, “Everything’s pretty much there; you just have to pay attention to details.”

Ranta said that some students may also have had problems if their anti-virus program was more obscure. “We just don’t have instructions for all of the anti-virus programs recognized by Bradford,” he said, adding that “for the most part, we’ve been able to get people fixed and online without too much of a problem.”

Artis and Lathrop said they still get calls every so often about Bradford, especially from Macintosh users who aren’t used to needing anti-virus software. Artis said that because the anti-virus program on the Web site to which the school directs students does not update automatically,  many Mac users have been sent back to the remediation network. Artis said, however, that the Mac anti-virus program can be set to update automatically, which would eliminate these problems.

Artis and Lathrop also said that if a computer does get a virus, that computer will automatically be kicked off of the internet. The Help Desk has to approve between its hours of 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. that the user did get rid of the virus before the computer will be allowed back onto the internet.

While many students have since become accustomed to the new Bradford PA, many have concerns, even to the point that a Facebook group was created to address these concerns. The group, SMCM Students Against Bradford Persistent Agent, boasts 395 members as of Sat., Sept. 19, or roughly 20 percent of the student population.

The major concern was privacy. Bradford does have the ability to search computers for the existence of certain files. However, according to Ranta, it can only look for files that it has specifically been told to look for–it cannot audit all of the files on a computer. Also, it can only detect the presence of a file, not whether the file is running.

“I’m not going to have it start searching for any files,” Ranta said, who pointed out that someone in the administration had asked him to shut off all peer-to-peer file sharing in response to Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) strictures. He declined to do so. “I don’t think turning off all access to file sharing is the answer.”

Students were also concerned about the slowing down of the internet and the control of internet bandwidth. First of all, Ranta said that Bradford PA only connects to local servers, so it doesn’t use the full internet.

Ranta also said that the College is involved in “package shaping” to control streaming media, and that some students might be having problems if they are downloading a type of video format not recognized by the network which would then be downgraded to a lower priority. He said that the College originally had a problem with Hulu, and that students having problems with streaming media should let the Help Desk know with which Web sites they are having problems.

Students are also concerned that the Student Government Association was never contacted about the installation of Bradford PA, even though the system was tested for about two years before the College put it to universal use.

“That wasn’t ever brought up among us in our discussions. We probably should have,” said Ranta.

Some students still are not convinced that Bradford PA is a good thing for the campus.

“We appreciate what they’re doing,” said junior Kyle McGrath, one of the administrators of SMCM Students Against Bradford Persistent Agent. “If that system [from last year] can’t be sustained, something else is fine.” However, he still has concerns about students’ files privacy.

“It’s like the government putting cameras in your bedroom but saying they’ll keep them switched off,” said McGrath.

Fellow members of SMCM Students Against Bradford Persistent Agent, juniors Dietrich Epp Schmidt and Ernest Rotili, raised concerns about the security of students’ files if someone were to hack into the center of the College computer system. They believe that because Bradford PA runs in the background of a computer’s system, that puts the program “beneath our computers’ encryption roof,” according to Rotili.

Rotili called the possibility of seeing past computer encryption a “jackpot for hackers.”

Members of SMCM Students Against Bradford Persistent Agent sent letters to several administrators on Friday, Sept. 18 calling attention to their concerns.

“I’m 99.9 percent confident that this is going to be solved by negotiation,” McGrath said. Ranta himself has said that if students were adamant against the PA, he would consider returning to the dissolvable agent.

Other students are not so sure that protesting Bradford PA is a good idea.

“It doesn’t slow our internet,” said Townhouse Senator junior Matt Smith. “They are not looking at our files. They have no intention of looking at our files…What’s their motivation [to look]? They don’t have any.

“If we fight the wrong battle, we’ll worsen our relationship [with the administration],” Smith added. “Our credibility will deteriorate, kind of like the boy who cried wolf.”

To see what Bradford allows the administration to see on your computer, visit the Web site set up by the Student Help Desk, http://www.smcm.edu/helpdesk/network/cm_views.html.

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