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Sep 10 2014

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Are government-issued laptops being compromised at the factory or after being assigned?

A discussion on a recent report on finding spyware on a government-issued laptop assigned to a student, against concerns that the devices might already be compromised before they end up in the students’ hands.

Binocular (ntwowe)In Trinidad and Tobago last week, the Chairman of the board of directors of the Trinidad and Tobago Amateur Radio League (TTARL), Julien Dedier, reportedly found spyware on the government-issued laptop assigned to his daughter. He was therefore calling on the Government of Trinidad and Tobago to:

1.  Test all computers to ensure no spying bugs were implanted, or recall all computers given out until they can be certified free from any spying devices.

2.  A national education programme be launched to educate not just teachers and children, but parents as well

3.  All future computers that are to be given out must be checked and certified free from any spying devices. (Source: Trinidad and Tobago Guardian)

The Minister of Education, Dr Tim Gopeesingh, eventually responded indicating that “there was nothing wrong with the Government-issued laptops”, but an investigation would nevertheless be conducted. (Source: Trinidad Express Newspapers).

This article discusses the allegations that spyware is being pre-installed in the devices prior to delivery to the Caribbean, as well as what might be a more plausible explanation for many of the instances where spyware is found on laptops assigned to students.

Allegations

Over the past several months, there has been a lot of finger pointing to China, which has been donating or otherwise subsidising the delivery of tens of thousands of laptops and tablet computers, especially to schools, across the region. Many of those devices are made in China, and/or are Chinese brands, which it is being alleged, may provide an opportunity for spyware to be pre-installed before they arrive in the Caribbean.

However, unless or until comprehensive and carefully controlled tests are performed, one may not be in a position to say with any authority that devices originating from China are compromised. It is a serious allegation, and hence ought to be properly substantiated before any action can is pursued.

Movies, music and porn

Until such time that an allegation of pre-installed spyware can be truly confirmed, there might be a more likely and plausible explanation for spyware and malware found on child’s laptop: poor online security practice by students. Although the laptops and tablets provided are meant for school and learning, they are likely to feature most prominently in recreation – to stream and download free movies, music and pornography, However, many of those sites tend to be riddled with malware, spyware and viruses, which ultimately compromise the security of the device and that of the user.

Responsible use

In relation to the one laptop (or tablet) per student initiatives that have been occurring across the Caribbean, and recognising the range of online threats that exist, it might be prudent to ensure that both students and teachers are aware of the dangers that lurk, and the safer practices that ought to be adopted.

In Trinidad and Tobago, and according to Dr Gopeesingh, the laptops that are being assigned to students have a “sound clear administrative policy which the parent accepts and signs and has to adhere to the responsibility. They are not permitted to go into any other unauthorised software”. However, it is not clear what practical guidance has been given within schools and to families to help students, teachers and parents understand the terms under which devices are being assigned and the implications therein should the policy not be followed.

In summary, the allegations of spyware is being pre-installed on laptops and other computing devices prior to delivery into the Caribbean, ought to have very little support, since so far there is no clear proof or validation of such an occurrence. Instead, it is more likely that children see the government-issued laptop as their personal device to enjoy within and outside of school. Further, and having little regard for the rules under which the devices has been assigned to them, they become compromised, and expose themselves and their families to dangerous spyware from questionable websites. Hence more education and senitisation might be needed to ensure better and safer handling of computing devices by all concerned.

 

Image credit:  Ntwowe (FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

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About the author

Michele Marius

Michele Marius has a wealth of experience in the telecoms and ICT space, which has been gained in the Caribbean, Southeast Asia and the South Pacific, and in the public and private sectors. She is the Editor and Publisher of ICT Pulse.

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