How private is the net?

Some of the servers and cabling housed in the Technology Services Office. Tom Lany.
Some of the servers and cabling housed in the Technology Services Office. Tom Lany.

As students continue to become more connected through the Internet, they have a reason to be concerned about their privacy while on they are online. The College, music companies, Facebook friends and others have access to information about Gustavus students.

Gustavus, like any other institution that provides a network connection for others, has the ability to monitor the usage of its network resources.

“We don’t do anything on an ongoing basis to look at the content people are sending on the Internet,” Associate Director of Core Services Ethan Sommer said.

“It is technically possible to view unencrypted traffic traveling across our network traveling out to the Internet,” Associate Director of Core Services Dan Oachs said.

“Typically we only do that if we suspect a virus to try to track down the problem,” Sommer said.

“All we really know is how much bandwidth you have been using. We don’t have any information about where you have been,” Oachs said.

While Gustavus does not typically log Internet usage, it does monitor how much bandwidth students are using. The College’s systems slow down internet connections on computers that have used a large amount of bandwidth in the past twenty-four hours when the connection is being fully utilized to keep the Internet running fast for all users.

“If we don’t do anything, I would guess a dozen to twenty-five computers would end up using 85 percent of the bandwidth, and everyone else [would be] slow. The goal of this system is to try to make everything fair,” Sommer said.

“If you have downloaded nothing, then you get an even share of the network. If you have downloaded 100MB, you get half as much as someone who hasn’t downloaded anything, Sommer said.

“We use all of our bandwidth a couple hours a day. It only really kicks into play when we are near the maximum. If we are not near our maximum, there is no reason to slow you down,” Sommer said.

Some colleges use a packet shaper to control Internet usage. A packet shaper analyzes network traffic and slows down certain services (often Peer to Peer file sharing like BitTorrent) to improve network performance for other services, not taking into account how much bandwidth a computer has used.

According to Oachs and Sommer, Gustavus stopped using a packet shaper when it implemented the bandwidth fairness system a couple of years ago.

“What they are doing is reasonable. That’s not to say that it isn’t annoying sometimes, but I can definitely see their logic behind it,” Sophomore Computer Science Major Kenton Watson said.

For some students from other countries, more restrictive censorship is the norm.

“In China you cannot use Facebook, YouTube or Twitter. China wants to build a great Firewall,” First-year student Bo Yang said.

“Over the past four or five years, we have taken several steps, one being allowing dynamic IP addresses, another being switching away from using the packet shaper, where we have intentionally said, ‘Privacy is a good thing, we try to not get in the way of how students are using the Internet that we don’t have to,’” Sommer said.

“We do, rather frequently get requests from copyright holders asking us to take note of people that have probably been downloading stuff that they own copyrights to,” Sommer said.

“The RIAA will send us notifications saying, ‘This IP address is sharing this song.’ If we have enough data to say it was registered to this person and they were using it at that time, we’ll send off [a notification to the user],” Oachs said.

The College does not always know what computer was involved. “What we do know is today at 10 o’clock this IP address was used by this person,”  Sommer said.

“We know for approximately the last week,” Oachs said.

“That’s how long we feel we need that information to, for example, track down people with viruses on their computers,” Sommer said.

“Sending notifications to the user is required by law,” Sommer said.

“[We receive] on average about five every couple of days,” Oachs said.
Despite this high number of notifications, some students question the ability of copyright holders to prosecute students.

“There is probably nothing they can do about it. The amount of effort it would take to go after one specific person [would be] too much,” Watson said.

“We don’t go out of our way to fight the RIAA, but we are unlikely to fight a subpoena. If they have a legal subpoena from a judge, we are going to comply with that subpoena,” Sommer said.

“We did receive one big wave of actual legal subpoenas [a couple of years ago].

Because we don’t actually keep very much information about what people have been doing on our network, we were actually only able to tie the subpoenas back to two people,” Sommer said.

“If you have pirated stuff and didn’t get it over our network, that’s none of our business. If you put it on our servers, then it becomes our business,” Sommer said.

Students have varying opinions about the ethics of downloading music online.

“I feel bad if it’s a new band, but if its an old one and they’ve already become successful, I don’t think it’s as big of a deal,” First-year Drew Jensen said.

“No one would walk into a music store and take music. If I download music, I get it off iTunes to support the artist and the work they put into it,” Senior Nursing Major Chantell Ziegler said.

As students are increasingly sharing things like pictures on social networking sites, new privacy concerns have emerged.

“If you put a picture on Facebook, you may have privacy settings that say only your friends are allowed to see that picture, but any of your friends could download that picture and post it somewhere else,” Sommer said.

“Facebook and lots of other services may give you a sense that you have control over what happens, but when you give anyone else access to it, they have control then over it, too,” Sommer said.

“Even if you completely trust Facebook, if you don’t completely trust everyone on your friends list, then there is a risk that someone is going to use that in a [different] context,” Sommer said.

With the advent of social networking, some have totally given up on privacy.
“Come Facebook, Twitter, and RFID cards, we have kind of given up our privacy so it doesn’t really matter anymore,” Sophomore Griffen Hinwood said.

Phishing is another privacy issue. Phishers try to collect personal information about people over the Internet, which they often intend to use against that person.

Phishers often send clever e-mails that look like they are official requests for information from companies, trying to get users to send them information like passwords.

“It could also have consequences if they give information for financial [institutions], or if they give information that would allow someone to get financial information. They could transfer money out of your account,” Sommer said.

Some students are more concerned about their privacy when it comes to financial information.

“When I do my bank account, I always make sure to log off,” Senior Health Fitness Major Sheila Arnolds said.

“We do our best to prevent phishing Emails from getting through, but we certainly don’t block all of the phishing messages,” Sommer said.

Gustavus Technology Services’ website states that it will never ask for passwords via e-mail, and it encourages users to never send any sensitive information like passwords via e-mail.

More resources regarding privacy issues are available online.  See:

8 thoughts on “How private is the net?

  1. Phishing mails could be very harmful.
    Please note:
    No serious company will ask you about sensible data via email.
    In case you have any doubt about a mail, contact the company by phone and ask if they sent out that mail.

    That way you avoid to get your cc hacked or even worse.

  2. One should never give up on privacy. Privacy is taken, not given. When we post on Facebook or MySpace, we are not giving up on privacy if we set the privacy options correctly. The point of these sites is to share information with friends, not necessarily the entire world. When set properly, the privacy settings protect the user from sharing their information inappropriately.

    While the university does not monitor the Internet activities of the students today, that does not mean they won’t in the future. Their policy, while commendable is subject to change.

    When surfing the Internet from a wireless hot spot, I suggest using an anonymous proxy to hide your IP address and to encrypt your communications. By encrypting your Internet traffic you make it harder for someone to use a packet sniffer to intercept your activity. By changing your IP address you make it harder for websites to track back to you.

  3. The internet has certainly opened the world up for a lot of people. I think if you put anything whatsoever online then you can be pretty much assured that it can become public. Once you give the control of your information to someone else then it is out of your hands.

  4. I agree with your sentiment, William Edwards, that we should never give up on privacy, yet when the owners of companies like Google and Facebook come out and pretty much say they don’t think we, their users, deserve privacy, I find it hard to put any trust in their service. Nor, am I confident that they will do the right thing with the massive amount of information they gather.

    Ultimately, I follow the rule of not putting anything up about myself that I don’t want others to find out about. To this end, you won’t find me on Facebook or other similar sites.

  5. Posting anything online is not really any different than putting it in a newspaper. I see things posted on Facebook and other social sites that make me cringe. It is not a good idea to post pics of children online anywhere. There are too many predators of all kinds online to post anything that might be found and used by anyone for any unethical purpose. Help protect yourself. Things posted online today can haunt you for a very long time.

  6. With respect to James Polk above, your statement is not correct. Putting something in a paper gives someone control of the information. Any paper article will eventually fade into the archives, but something on the net is there forever. Our biggest problem Vis-a -Vie the internet crops up when we trust others to respect our privacy. Libby Hoeler will live in web infamy and all she did was make a simple mistake trusting her boyfriend with some very private videos, and her life was ruined because of an invasion of her privacy from a source that she had no control over. This invasion of her privacy goees on today as any Internet search will show you.

    Once it is on the web, it CANNOT BE STOPPED due to the pervasive nature of the Internet.

  7. My rule of thumb, if you are interacting through the internet, ASSUME that you do NOT have any privacy. Clearly social networks such as Facebook are for sharing information, what is private about that?

  8. My thinking is to post comments on FB that can be seen and spoken again by someone you may not know and set all to friends only for max privacy. Although I will say more in a private inbox. But I guess that comes into the same category of one day being not private?

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