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Spy Fighters: Keeping student laptops spyware-free

How do you keep 750 laptops belonging to K-12 students clean of spyware? It's not easy. One network administrator shares her techniques.

When asked which antispyware solutions work best and when to use them, readers had a lot to say. The following commentary is one of 10 letters to the editor describing readers' preferred antispyware solutions, their biggest spyware concerns and, in some cases, their own tips for preventing spyware infections. Click for the complete series.

Letter #5: Keeping student laptops spyware-free

Reader: Lindsay Jeffers
Network Administrator
Stevenson School
Pebble Beach, Calif.

Environment: I work for a K-12 day and boarding school that supports more than 750 student and faculty-owned laptops.

Spyware dilemma: We are a laptop school where all students in grades 6 through 12 have laptops, either purchased through the school or from outside sources. Even after educating students and faculty on the dangers of spyware, in an environment personal computers are used regular attention is required.

Antispyware solution: Lavasoft's Ad-Aware, Spybot-Search & Destroy, Sunbelt Software's CounterSpy, Symantec's Enterprise AV solution

We ask all users to install and use Ad-Aware. Most students pick up enough malware to slow their machines down after a few months. When we show them how effective Ad-Aware can be in speeding up their machines, they begin to use it regularly on their own.

I employ Spybot on machines that seem to be more severely affected by Trojans and Internet Explorer redirectors. It catches a wide range of serious issues. I don't recommend students use it as frequently, since it tends to take more time. However, I have never seen it remove something mistakenly. Those students who needed it are advised to keep it on their machines and use it, since they have demonstrated a propensity to pick up nasty stuff.

I have also explored Sunbelt Software's CounterSpy. I purchased it for my own machine, and I am impressed with the depth of its scanning. It seems to work well, but not enough to ask all students and staff to buy copies. I am not sure that all its reports are accurate. It has told me I have keystroke loggers on one machine, and I doubt I did (although it is possible). In any case, we may well look into the enterprise version for our network users, as we do our antivirus solution.

How Lindsay teaches students about the dangers of spyware: Incoming students receive a one-term technology skills class where use of our antispyware products is demonstrated, and horror stories are told of computers overcome with spyware to the point where nothing runs and pop-ups obscure all Web sites. Once the benefits of AV scanning, spyware scanning and defragging are presented, most students get the picture and realize that they will be better off taking responsibility for their own computer use.

One key to education is convincing the user that the computer won't behave reliably if it is infected: It will not run games smoothly or play DVDs, much less produce flashy Power Points. Many students make it a point to have their computers reimaged a couple of times each year to return them to a pristine operational state. These are students who have learned to use the network backup facility or have their own external drives. We use Altiris to maintain and roll out our laptop images. Some students use reimaging as a morning-after pill for insecure computing practices.

For more letters to the editor, click for the complete series.

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