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Malware 101: University Offers Course on Spyware

Malware 101: University Offers Course on Spyware

"We think that with this course the University of Calgary means to further knowledge of how to defend against these issues," said Steve Linford of the SpamHaus Project. "However, if they suddenly see an influx of Russian students with 'Spam King' T-shirts applying for this course, we hope they quickly bolt the doors."

By John P. Mello Jr.
02/10/05 7:56 AM PT

The University of Calgary is at it again.

The Canadian school gained some notoriety two years ago when its computer science department launched a course on computer viruses, which included, as part of the coursework, writing a virus.

This week, the brains behind the virus course, Assistant Professor John Aycock, announced an offering for this fall on spyware and spam, which includes writing a spyware program.

Responsible Teaching

"Spam and spyware are huge problems for society, so in some ways it would seem irresponsible not to be teaching our students about these topics," Aycock told TechNewsWorld.

According to the course description, it "will objectively examine two major, modern concerns: spam and other forms of unsolicited bulk electronic communication, and spyware. Relevant legal and ethical issues will be covered, along with tie-ins to other fields like business and economics."

The course will also cover spamming and spyware techniques, current and upcoming countermeasures to them and related computer and network security problems.

Secure Environment

Some lessons learned from setting up the virus course will be applied to the new program, Aycock noted. "We have expertise now in setting up a very secure environment for our students to work in," he said.

"We're confident that nothing that our students do is going to get out of our virus lab and wreak havoc on the world," he observed. "We're confident we can set up a similar environment for students to experiment with spamming and spyware techniques, as well as the countermeasures against them."

Students who wish to enroll in the program are screened and may have to write an admissions essay that's ranked by a committee. They also must sign an agreement that says they understand that misuse of the information in this course can result in civil and criminal penalties under the laws of Canada and other countries.

Spam Fighters Divided

Spam fighters appear to be divided on the merits of Aycock's endeavor.

"Putting together spyware and spam is a tempting combination because it could become a very lucrative sideline for a student," Pete Simpson, threat lab manager in the UK offices of Clearswift, told TechNewsWorld.

"It's really comes down to trust at the end of the day," he said. "How much can you trust the student to use that knowledge ethically. That's a very difficult area."

Providing an appropriate ethical framework for students is important in a course like this, according to Phyllis Schneck, vice president for strategic development for CipherTrust in Atlanta, Georgia. "I don't endorse teaching people to hack," she told TechNewsWorld. "I endorse educating people on the business, financial and ethical impact of vulnerabilities."

Spam King T-Shirts

Steve Linford, CEO and founder of the SpamHaus Project, said he didn't believe the Canadian course will be a source of future spam lords.

"We think that with this course the University of Calgary means to further knowledge of how to defend against these issues, rather than produce new recruits to the spam underground," he told TechNewsWorld via e-mail.

He added waggishly, "However, if they suddenly see an influx of Russian students with 'Spam King' T-shirts applying for this course, we hope they quickly bolt the doors."

Best in World

While not surprised by some of the barbs tossed at him by critics, Aycock finds them misdirected.

"The best way to teach people something so that they really understand it is to have them do it," he said.

"You don't learn to play the violin by talking about playing the violin," he continued. "You might get something out of watching someone good play the violin, but until you actually sit down with a violin in your hands, you aren't really going to get it."

"We do take a very hands-on approach to the material," he added. "The thing is we're able to do this in a safe way and ultimately give our students one of the best educations they can get in this field in the world."


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