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Smoothwall offers advice on school computer passwords

Smoothwall : 20 November, 2007  (Technical Article)
Passwords in schools require a different approach in order to avoid compromisation from other pupils according to Smoothwall who have recently issued guidance to co-incide with anti-bullying week.
According to children's charity NCH, at least one in five children has experienced some form of digital bullying. This year, the key theme for Anti-Bullying Week (19-23 November) is "cyberbullying, schools and the community", and the race is on for schools and ICT teachers to introduce specific policies to address the growing problem of cyberbullying.

According to Ofcom, over 40 per cent of 5 to 15 year olds and nearly two thirds of 12 to 15 year olds regularly use the Internet. As the dangers associated with the Internet continue to evolve and develop, schools and parents are fighting an uphill battle to keep surfing safe. Fortunately, thanks to the efforts of anti-bullying groups, government agencies and service providers, a comprehensive range of guidance and resources on cyberbullying is now available. But Internet specialists, SmoothWall, say that unless password protection is suitably stepped up in schools, the digital bullies will continue to escape detection. This is why SmoothWall is today launching its Password Generator, specifically aimed at helping schools to teach students how to create cyber-bully proof passwords.

Cyber-bullies know that users leave digital signatures and that mobile phones and hotmail account access can be traced in seconds. To bypass this, cyber-bullies guard their anonymity by using phones, email and Instant Messaging (IM) accounts belonging to others. Sometimes the owners are coerced into it, but often they are simply innocent victims of password theft, which is where SmoothWall feels there is a weak link and teachers need to educate students as to how this vulnerability can be eliminated.

Conventional password wisdom is completely wrong for schools. Passwords don't need to be protected from automated 'dictionary' or 'brute force' attacks (where a computer program is used to guess passwords in multiple attempts), but from other pupils.

Tom Newton, product development manager at SmoothWall, says it is important that password advice is modified to suit: "In schools, the biggest risks are from other users and so passwords need not be particularly long or even alphanumeric, just difficult to guess and easy to remember."

For many ICT teachers though, passwords are a pain. Why?

Pupils frequently forget them - the first 15 minutes of every lesson can be often spent making sure that everyone is 'logged on'. To combat this, many use generic logins and some even admit to telling students to write their passwords in the front of their workbooks!

Password sharing amongst kids and a tendency to choose passwords that can be easily guessed ie favourite football teams, dates of birth, relatives or pets names, etc.
Common password choices include no password (ie blank) the words 'pass' or 'password' or a row of letters on the keyboard (e.g. qwerty), and can be easily guessed and abused

Schools that do encourage or enforce more water-tight password protection are also experiencing problems - because the passwords are too complicated for pupils to remember.

Craig Wilson, ICT Network Manager at Moorside High School in Swinton says he does try to encourage students to use strong passwords, but they always forget them: "Our pupils seem to have an interesting knack of remembering their mates' password - but not their own!"

To help ICT teachers improve security without disrupting lessons, SmoothWall has produced a password advice sheet that is specifically designed for schools. Challenging the suitability of conventional password wisdom, their guidance advocates the use of short yet memorable passwords and even suggests that it is unnecessary for children to change their login details regularly.

Newton explains: "Whereas a professional phisher might spend months secretly exploiting a compromised password belonging to a company's server, pupils are much more prone to instantly obvious attacks - like changing profiles on bebo/Facebook. Asking them to change their passwords every second moon is pointless and just adds to the problem."

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