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Students Learn about Computer Security

Students taking computer classes at Westfield High learned from the experts last week just how vulnerable their own computers are to viruses, hackers and predators. They also learned a thing or two about ethics.

"At Westfield, we take ethics very seriously," said Assistant Principal Dave Jagels. "Ethics are decisions you make when nobody's looking."

He organized a cyber-ethics presentation at the school, last Friday afternoon, in partnership with the National Cyber Security Alliance (NCSA) and the Department of Homeland Security. It was part of National Computer Security Month and opened the students' eyes to some very real dangers.

NCSA provides tools and resources to empower home-computer users, small businesses, schools and colleges to stay safe online. See www.staysafeonline.info for specifics about how to improve cyber security.

"WHEN YOU'RE online, you have to know who you're [really] talking to," said Air Force veteran Erik Smith, who now works with the Department of Homeland Security. "I may tell you who I am online, but you don't know that."

Students then viewed a movie about cyber dangers. They learned about malicious codes — software that can cause damage, steal information or use up resources on a computer network. And they saw how viruses attack computer files and worms attach themselves to as many computers as possible.

Eventually, students could find themselves facing a denial of computer services or a hacking attack. And beware of Trojan horses — they can open up a back door to allow hackers access to a computer. Then students' files may be opened and deleted without their knowledge and their password stolen.

The movie warned of computer hoaxes that could spread viruses. Often, they're in the form of messages with upper-case letters, exclamation points and misspelled words. To find out if such a message is real or a hoax, go to v.myths.com.

Regarding online identity theft, in the last five years, 27.3 million Americans have had their identity stolen. So students were advised not to tell others their computer I.D.s and passwords and to avoid giving out their credit-card numbers unless they truly know the Web site they're on is safe.

"And avoid giving out your Social Security number, as much as possible," said Steve Godwin, youth-empowerment manager at i-Safe, a California company alerting youth to the dangers of the Internet. "Fifty million students are online today, and it's expected to rise to 77 million in the next year."

He asked the students how they could avoid computer viruses, and one replied, "You can put up a firewall [software creating a protective barrier against possible attacks] and use updated anti-virus software." In addition, said Godwin, "Don't open up attachments from e-mail messages you get from persons you don't know. Otherwise, hackers can grab your personal information — credit-card numbers, address, etc."

"THE FIRST LINE of defense online is you," he told the students. "So it's up to you guys to keep yourselves safe. Think about what kind of information you're passing online. Predators are trying to lure you out of the chat room to meet you in person."

Godwin then related two instances where a boy and a girl each met their predator and were murdered. So, he emphasized, "There are dangers and risks to your personal safety, as well. And disconnect from the Internet when you're through using it — don't leave any doors open."

The next topic was the illegal downloading of music and videos and, when asked, many of the students admitted that they do it. But Mary Radnofsky, president of the Socrates Institute — which is developing videos and a Web game about cyber ethics — was there to dissuade them.

"Did you realize, if you're over 18, we could throw you in jail for that?" she asked. "And when pranks get to a certain level, we talk to the FBI and to Homeland Security."

Radnofsky said that, in September, FBI agents raided homes to crack down on the sharing of illegal music, movies, games and videos between 7,000 people. "A guy in New Jersey got a copy of 'The Hulk' online, before it was released in theaters," she said. "He faces three years in prison and a $250,000 fine."

She also made students aware of the victims in this case — which included the movie studio that made it and the theaters that would show it, because both would lose money on ticket sales. "Because of the stuff that you're doing — illegally downloading music and movies and sharing it with your friends — police can knock on your door. And if you're found guilty, you can be barred from using the Internet for as long as they'd like."

Radnofsky then told them about a 16-year-old Miami boy who, in 2000, hacked into the Defense Department's Military Security System, NASA and the defense Threat Reduction Agency, which deals with biological threats.

"He downloaded programs with a value of $1.7 million and controlled the temperature on the space station," she said. "He was tried as a juvenile and spent six months in jail — juvenile detection." Again, students learned who the victims were — NASA, the Pentagon, the Defense Department, the taxpayers and the people on the space station — because someone else could control the air they breathed.

"If you'd been this cyber criminal, over age 18, what could happen to you and what rights could you lose?" asked Radnofsky. Students replied that they'd lose their driving privileges and their right to vote and would go to prison.

"So make the right choices, and reconsider," she said. "If you do [illegal downloading] enough times, you'll get red-flagged and they'll find you."

After the program, freshman Rachael Smith said it was "interesting to see everything you can do to stay safe on the Internet so you won't get in trouble with the law." Junior Jay Lee said the presentation was definitely worthwhile.

"It was very informative about the anti-viruses and firewalls because we don't want viruses to get into our stuff," he said. "I'm planning to change my password, install an Internet-security program and save myself from the viruses, worms and spam."

Senior Derick Lamb said the program taught him "how easily accessible my computer is to viruses. I was really shocked." He, too, plans to upgrade his firewalls and was glad to get some knowledge about how to keep his computer "safe and well." As for freshman Sara Milstead, from now on, she said, "I'm not telling anybody my password."