Advanced Security Solutions in Higher Education

From the physical to the technological, from harm to students or buildings to breach of confidential information or identity theft, the list of imminent risk on college campuses today is seemingly endless. Alarming news reports have revealed the physical vulnerabilities, and data collected from the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse shows that more than 50 colleges and universities have fallen victim to an IT breach already this year. Higher education is at a security risk crossroads, and educational leaders must be aware of and implement best practices for securing physical and logical assets.

In order to achieve this balance cost-effectively, many college and university leaders are looking towards advanced technology solutions that offer new capabilities. A new array of vendor services now allow higher education institutions to maximize security investments, including logical network security, identity management, intrusion protection, and digital video surveillance (DVS). The important issue for institutions is to recognize the challenge is not necessarily new products, but a disciplined process for implementing new solutions to maximize their investments.

Colleges and universities are very open environments with many transient users plugging in to and out of networks. This complexity requires constant monitoring and evaluation by administrators and regulators. With limited financial and staffing resources, many educational institutions struggle to secure and sustain an educational IT system and its data against security breaches, natural disasters, and other related incidents.

A Wide Spectrum of Possibilities

To help safeguard the privacy of data and systems, higher education institutions are looking to develop solutions that protect intellectual capital, personal information, and data through network and data security solutions, identity management, access control, and IT assessments.

Just a few examples of some recent campus IT security projects can help outline the spectrum of challenges.

  • A European university of more than 22,000 students needed to improve security measures for information such as student data and exam records.
  • A large, U.S.-based medical research university needed to improve its disaster recovery capabilities and protect its scientific databases.
  • A university in Texas needed help balancing academic freedom and protection from viruses, worms, and malware.
  • An urban university wanted to lower the operating cost of campus video surveillance while improving overall response and security levels.

The range of issues under the safety and security umbrella can be quite large, which is why many vendors recommend security assessments in order to help institutions prioritize their challenges and direct their limited investment resources to the most important areas.

Campus IT leaders have identified security as the area with the most potential to grow in significance over the next year, according to the 2007 EDUCAUSE Current Issues Survey Report. Report authors John S. Camp, Peter B. DeBlois, and the Current Issues Committee suggest that institutions large and small, public and private need to address the development and implementation of security infrastructure and campuswide security policies, awareness, and training. The Identity Theft Resource Center attributes 28 percent of security breaches to the Education Industry. Education constituents expect institutions to do better, and the potential liability issues from these breaches have now gotten senior executive attention.

Confronting the Enemy

While we seem locked in a never-ending “arms race” with hackers and those trying to penetrate our IT defenses, there are now a lot of options to protect IT resources without sacrificing the open culture of education. New technologies provide both proactive and ongoing analysis of weaknesses to help address them before a breach occurs. More often than not, the answer is not simply products, but improvements to methodologies and processes to make IT infrastructures more secure. That’s the main reason vendors have developed deep services capabilities, in addition to new products, to address these threats.

But the challenge in security is not just IT infrastructure, as important it is. It is also securing the physical assets and people of the institution. Campus safety is a top issue with parents, students, and administrators. Fortunately, new solutions for campus safety can now exploit the significant investment in IT infrastructure that institutions have made over the years. These new solutions can both improve service levels and lower operating costs.
Video Surveillance Analytics Systems

For example, advanced video surveillance analytics systems can help protect an institution’s physical environment and the people within it. Smart surveillance systems are digital video surveillance monitors that not only document an event in real time, but can also provide real-time images via an Internet protocol (IP) network to make the images immediately available to campus security, first responders, community leaders, and/or law enforcement. The capture of data through smart surveillance creates a more secure environment within the education institution and the community in which it resides.

Leaders at St. John’s University in New York City, with a student population of more than 19,000 across three campuses, looked for assistance in overhauling their aging surveillance system. Video surveillance had been a key part of the 135-year-old institution’s capabilities for a number of years, but leaders were looking to leverage new technologies and lower costs while improving security capabilities to accommodate a growing resident and commuter student population.

As St. John’s Vice President of Public Safety Thomas Lawrence explains it, the school did not wish to replace the old system, but rather perform the safety function more effectively through the application of advanced technology. Before the overhaul, video surveillance would need to be transferred to VHS, and then someone would need to sit down and run through up to 72 hours of video to find a specific incident. University administrators were hoping to find software that could help them do the monitoring and grow the system’s capabilities. 

After a thorough evaluation, a complete, integrated systems solution was devised, including design and implementation of a network-based integrated digital video system using both existing and new cameras. St. John’s was able to save a considerable amount of money by keeping its existing cameras and adding to them a number of entirely new capabilities such as instant replay of video without service interruption — providing optimum security effectiveness around-the-clock. The overhauled system can be integrated with other campus security applications, such as card-key access and alarm and incident-management systems. Video or still clips can be easily exported and system software can intelligently flag events of interest (e.g., motion sensing).

University leaders realized “this was a systems integration problem, not a video problem,” said Walter Kerner, St. John’s director of Network Services. The entire project took only four months, from the signing of the contract to going live, and there was only five minutes of downtime during the entire switchover.

The important point is that decision makers need to look at the issues unique to their institution and seek to capitalize on what they have, while directing their investment toward what will make the most difference. Frequently, the best options may not be off-the-shelf products, but a process-oriented services solution that best addresses their needs.

Confronting the Task

For most institutions, IT and physical security are daunting tasks to take on. Rather than spending countless hours and dollars trying to manage security challenges, however, higher-education leaders can now turn to cost-effective, comprehensive solutions. With so many different facets to consider on a college campus, integrating physical security with IT is critical — and it can help institutions stay ahead of the threats that surface everyday in higher education. The key is to begin with a disciplined assessment of current status and challenges, prioritize needed improvements, leverage existing capabilities, and implement appropriate solutions to both infrastructure, as well as processes.

Michael King is vice president, Global Education Industry, for IBM Corporation. He can be contacted at [email protected]
or 310/727-4200.