Malware 101: University Offers Course on Spyware

The University of Calgary is at it again.

The Canadian school gained some notoriety two years agowhen 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 JohnAycock, announced an offering for this fall on spyware and spam, whichincludes writing a spyware program.

Responsible Teaching

“Spam and spyware are huge problems for society, so in some ways it wouldseem 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 electroniccommunication, and spyware. Relevant legal and ethical issues will becovered, along with tie-ins to other fields like business and economics.”

The course will also cover spamming and spyware techniques, current andupcoming countermeasures to them and related computer and network securityproblems.

Secure Environment

Some lessons learned from setting up the virus course will be applied to thenew program, Aycock noted. “We have expertise now in setting up a verysecure environment for our students to work in,” he said.

“We’re confident that nothing that our students do is going to get out ofour virus lab and wreak havoc on the world,” he observed. “We’re confidentwe can set up a similar environment for students to experiment with spammingand spyware techniques, as well as the countermeasures against them.”

Students who wish to enroll in the program are screened and may have towrite an admissions essay that’s ranked by a committee. They also must signan agreement that says they understand that misuse of the information inthis course can result in civil and criminal penalties under the laws ofCanada 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 itcould become a very lucrative sideline for a student,” Pete Simpson, threatlab 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 muchcan you trust the student to use that knowledge ethically. That’s a verydifficult area.”

Providing an appropriate ethical framework for students is important in acourse like this, according to Phyllis Schneck, vice president for strategicdevelopment for CipherTrust in Atlanta, Georgia. “I don’t endorse teachingpeople to hack,” she told TechNewsWorld. “I endorse educating people on thebusiness, financial and ethical impact of vulnerabilities.”

Spam King T-Shirts

Steve Linford, CEO and founder of the SpamHaus Project, said he didn’tbelieve the Canadian course will be a source of future spam lords.

“We think that with this course the University of Calgary means to furtherknowledge of how to defend against these issues, rather than produce newrecruits to the spam underground,” he told TechNewsWorld via e-mail.

He added waggishly, “However, if they suddenly see an influx of Russianstudents with ‘Spam King’ T-shirts applying for this course, we hope theyquickly bolt the doors.”

Best in World

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

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

“You don’t learn to play the violin by talking about playing the violin,” hecontinued. “You might get something out of watching someone good play theviolin, but until you actually sit down with a violin in your hands, youaren’t really going to get it.”

“We do take a very hands-on approach to the material,” he added. “The thingis we’re able to do this in a safe way and ultimately give our students oneof the best educations they can get in this field in the world.”

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