Finding Out The Hard Way

December 30, 2005
Print
Text Size:
A A

WALKER — As West Michigan’s wireless broadband Internet initiatives move forward, the so-called digital divide that separates access to the Internet by economic class could rapidly close. As this happens, a significant portion of the community will be exposed to the dangers and uncertainties that savvy online users have learned to take for granted.

“You’re going to bring new people online, people with relatively low income, and I think that’s a great thing,” said Richard Murray, an assistant U.S. Attorney in the Western District of Michigan. “If you want kids to do their homework, it helps to give them the Internet. … But there is a barrier with security needs to be addressed.”

To address that concern, Murray is leading a coalition of law enforcement and technology professionals through the local affiliate of the FBI-sponsored InfraGuard program and the Grand Rapids chapter of the Information Systems Security Association.

As many users have learned over the past few years, he explained, the Web is hardly a playground. Through it, identity theft, online predators, scam artists and other concerns (“phishing,” worms, Trojan viruses) have been introduced to the nation — threats that sophisticated users have learned to recognize and avoid.

“These things happen more to relative newcomers rather than experienced people,” Murray said. “It becomes a matter of risk management. Like knowing whether or not you have to lock your car, that kind of decision is best made when you understand the options.”

In a way, the digital divide has served as a barrier against these attacks. By some estimates Grand Rapids is the Berlin of the digital divide, with the nation’s second lowest percentage of broadband Internet users in comScore Networks’ 2003 study. When that barrier falls in West Michigan, the community could be facing an unprecedented cyber crime wave.

“Nothing new is going to happen,” said Phillip Runner, a security engineer for Spectrum Health’s information and technology management department. “It’s just a matter of volume. They’re going to find out about security — just hopefully not the way most people did, by getting your identity stolen or finding out someone else is shopping with your credit cards.”

Murray’s group first convened a number of years ago, when Spectrum Health was addressing security issues on its network. The hope was to educate the general public about the dangers the business community was already addressing, but without identifying potential targets.

When the city of Grand Rapids declared its intentions to blanket itself in a citywide wireless Internet canopy, the group saw the challenge it had been looking for. If it could influence the Grand Rapids initiative and other regional initiatives, it could save the community an enormous amount of frustration.

The coalition’s intentions are threefold:

  • Influence any network to be designed with considerations for security, and to be easily upgradeable to address future concerns.
  • Assist law enforcement in regulating and protecting the users of a public network.
  • Educate users about security concerns.

“The idea is to get people thinking about it earlier than they normally would,” Murray said. “Historically, networks aren’t built with security in mind. Look back at the switchboard operator who was the town gossip, or the telegraph operator reading your mail.”

If addressed from the get-go, the incidental costs of security packages are much less, whereas retrofitting a network for security purposes is prohibitively expensive, noted Matt Carpenter, Alticor information technology security specialist.

On that issue, the city and its partners have been proactive, Murray said.

Perhaps the largest concern is the second issue: assisting law enforcement. If a municipal body begins providing its residents Internet access, even indirectly through a private vendor, residents will expect a certain degree of protection from its government.

Then, on the opposite side, it will have an equal responsibility for preventing malicious use through the access it provides. Law enforcement needs the ability to track and manage the network’s use, and must be able to do so against escalating budget pressure.

“It’s hard to ask law enforcement to add services,” he said. “But they will have to allocate money and training to deal with this additional group of complaints.”

Murray’s coalition has been working with the Walker Police Department and the city of Walker’s recent Wi-Fi demonstration project to create a presentation for local law enforcement agencies.   

Recent Articles by Daniel Schoonmaker

Editor's Picks

Comments powered by Disqus