Monday 15 September 2014

It's very complicated

Take a look at this article in the University World News, reporting work done by Claud Xiao and Rob Downs at Palo Alto Networks, a US internet-security company. It seems that it usernames and passwords, valid at universities across the world, are available on Taobao, the Chinese version of e-Bay. Accounts were available to buy at universities in Australia, Canada, China, Denmark, Italy, Singapore, Sweden, Switzerland, the UK and the USA.

I’m not an IT security expert, and this post isn’t about the technologies behind this: if you need counsel in that regard, don’t talk to me! My observations here are more about how complex the world is becoming for universities.

The accounts for sale were, reportedly, valid current student accounts – often accounts which were being used without the knowledge or permission of the student. “Don’t change the password” was the vendors’ advice, so as not to raise suspicions.

The most popular type of account was one which enabled the purchaser to unlock their Windows phone. This won’t be good news for the universities concerned, which will probably have a bit of explaining to do when the renegotiate their license fee with Microsoft. But at least in that case the use was external to the university. But also flagged were accounts which got access to research and library databases, and support. A university’s knowledge is the core of its value to the world, so this is looking difficult (albeit probably marginal for now) for universities.

But here’s a couple of bigger thoughts.

Firstly, universities are places which work on trust. Once you’re in, the culture is that you’re an equal member of the family, and that people will treat you as such. Does this sort of problem nudge universities even more to regarding their students instead as customers who perhaps aren’t what they seem? My guess is that the human factor (easily guessable passwords; risky online behaviour) is behind these hacks, so it isn’t about the unwitting students here trying to be bad. But the consequences of their behaviours gnaw away at trust.

And secondly, how much of our view of the world is conditioned by the language in which we browse? The world has lots of different alphabet types, let alone languages, and whilst I can’t speak and translate Danish, for instance, without help, I can at least recognise it as Danish and I can use Google to help. But my keyboard doesn’t do other sorts of alphabets – logographies, syllabaries, abjads. (If you want a good distraction check out this Wikipedia page on alphabet types, which enabled me to write the last sentence; you can find out what an abjad is too, aside from being a great Scrabble word). How can I even begin to understand what is going on with web pages which I don’t know how to read?

I don't know what this says ...
Many universities seek to act on a world stage, but how many are really equipped to do this? The IT account issue above shows that on the web, some of your neighbours speak and write in ways you can’t understand. This might worry you. But to push the neighbour metaphor a bit more, when you live in a multicultural place, you can either get suspicious, lock the doors and grumble about how it isn’t like it used to be; or you can accept change, have fun, and learn a bit of the lingo, so your neighbours become less like strangers.

If universities really want to internationalise then perhaps there’s a need to have more language fluency within management teams.

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