Cyberpatrol:

A select few aim to reduce abuse in cyberspace at the University of Virginia.

By Carrie Grigg


Freeze! You have just been apprehended and are about to be read your rights. Your crime? Abuse via computer. Your punishment? That depends--but on what? If you're a member of the University of Virginia community in Charlottesville, it depends on the Department of Information Technology and Communication (ITC) and the upholders of its policies. Samuel Miller, Jr., the assistant to the vice president of student affairs, is the officer in charge. Although Miller insists, "We're not the Web police," a shiny, plastic badge mounted on his monitor might tell you differently. For the past two years, he has pursued students, faculty, and staff who violate university computing policies or federal law.

Miller looks the part of an executive in a nice, gray suit, a stark contrast to the light-hearted surroundings of his office. Among his treasures are a Marvin the Martian statue, Dilbert comics, and a Dr. Dunk miniature basketball hoop with ball nearby. Sitting calmly at his computer, he sips steaming coffee as he prepares to dig into an ugly side of technology.

Miller maintains the site www.virginia.edu/~abuse, which details the rules and regs of computing at the university. He also works with an abuse-response team, whose members keep their identity a secret; U.Va. officials do not want potential violators to know the expertise of those they are up against. Since the formation of the team last year, incidents of reported abuse have been frequent, averaging about five violations per month.

So what constitutes abuse on the computer? Miller describes it as anything that involves a problem at the university caused by someone's actions--intentional or unintentional. He illustrates his point with the example of a student who posts naked Cindy Crawford pictures on his web page. If the page draws too many visitors or "hits," ITC will notice the web server slow to a halt. The same situation would apply to a student whose brilliant online novel became enormously popular.

Miller is quick to point out that the content of what is hindering the system is irrelevant, unless it blatantly violates regulations, which vary from state to state. The only difference is in the talk he gives to those at fault. Naked Cindy Crawford pictures violate copyright laws and have to be removed; an online novel could remain on the Internet by restricting the number of hits it receives at a given time.

To know what's acceptable or unacceptable, students and faculty receive separate copies of a handbook. Different rules apply; in general, students have more freedom on the computer. For example, students are allowed access to games and sexually explicit material, whereas faculty and staff are not. The bosses of faculty can monitor their subordinates' email, yet students have the right to email privacy.

Miller says that the worst abuse he's ever seen occurred last year. One U.Va. student constructed a website that featured necrophilia, sodomy, and extreme fetishism. "I'm no prude," Miller emphasizes, "but this was disturbing." He says the large number of complaints received were incredible; the site prompted a meeting of the president's cabinet, out of which came the idea for the abuse website. The student was ordered to redo his web page.

Miller says this kind of abuse is not out of control. Most reports of abuse are related to junk email, followed by harrassment and hacking--but U.Va. is reluctant to release detailed statistics. "It's Catch-22," Miller notes. "The whole prevention-versus-cure cliche." Miller would like to inform the community about abuse violations, yet wants to keep information confidential so that malicious individuals will not be educated on the damage they could do. However, he knows that publicizing a case of a reprimand may set an example to potential perpetrators.

Identifying and investigating violators is a big part of Miller's job description. He notes that several students are currently under investigation by the police or by the student judiciary committee, depending on the victim's decision. If an individual is the target of computer abuse, he or she decides how to seek retribution from those ITC has identified as guilty--it's finding the guilty party that is not always easy.

Most people who have been charged with violations are noticed by email, often because of the size of the message being sent. For example, emailing a copy of the latest CD takes up a significant chunk of cyberspace; ITC would notice immediately. "But nobody clicks around on student Web pages," says Miller. He also points out that a computer program, not a person, could easily monitor the sites if U.Va. felt it was necessary.

Yet monitoring is not a large part of ITC's mission. "We deliberately, on purpose, do not do any review of faculty, student, and staff Web pages before they go on-line," Miller emphasizes, "U.Va. is merely a distributor." According to federal law, a network which is a means of communication rather than a content editor, is not responsible for the actions of its users.

The university is responsible for providing due process as well as First Amendment rights. In a case where a student posted a parody of a company logo on his Web site, U.Va. remained neutral because the dispute was between the student and the company. Another student claims that U.Va.'s hospital is in cahoots with the federal government to cover up his abduction; once again, no action can be forced on the student because he is within his First Amendment rights. But when the FBI calls up claiming a student is operating pirated software, Miller has to make the problem go away. "Even more scary are the lawyers from [companies like] Microsoft," he says.

Maybe even more frightening are parents who see their offspring's risque Web pages and demand that they be removed. "You have no idea how bad I've been chewed out," Miller said. If the site doesn't violate any laws, Miller can remind a student of the probability that a future employer could visit the site--that's often motivation enough for students to voluntarily edit their Web creations.

To Miller, abuse prevention is about protection. Avoiding lawsuits and maintaining the well-being of the university community are two of ITC's primary goals. Even though he doesn't like to be known as a Web policeman, Miller acknowledges his role as one of a community defender. "To protect and serve" via computer is the mission--and he gladly accepts his assignment.

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