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  • SETI@home as Malware?

    This was on the InfoSec mailing list this morning, and I found it to be both interesting and worthy of comment.

    So one of the reasons cited for the firing/resignation/firing is that SETI@home was run on all the school district's computers, and that the energy used to run SETI was a huge burden.

    By Emily Gersema
    The Arizona Republic
    Nov. 30, 2009

    The search for intelligent life apparently has stopped for Brad Niesluchowski.

    Higley Unified School District records obtained by The Arizona Republic show that Niesluchowski, of Gilbert, resigned in October after an investigation into suspicious activity, including the use of a program that searches satellite signals for extraterrestrial life.

    According to the documents, district officials said they found Niesluchowski had abused his authority in purchasing and oversight of district technology and equipment, and downloaded to every district computer a University of California-Berkeley program that relies on volunteers and their personal computers to search satellite-collected data for signs of intelligent life in outer space.

    Higley officials so far estimate the damages, energy usage and equipment losses linked to Niesluchowski at $1.2 million to $1.6 million.

    District administrators hand-delivered a notice of termination of contract for cause to Niesluchowski on Oct. 7, which he refused to sign.
    He instead consulted an attorney, and then resigned at the attorney's advice.

    According to the termination letter, Niesluchowski faces several allegations that he violated the terms and responsibilities of his contract and ethics policies - and is the focus of a criminal investigation. Documents show:

    * During a warranted search of his home earlier this fall, Gilbert
    police found 18 computers and other equipment stolen from the
    district.

    * District officials said they learned Niesluchowski never installed
    firewalls that would protect students' and staff members' personal
    information from hackers, exposing district computer and data to
    potential tampering or damage.

    * District officials also say he failed to train and supervise other
    tech staff.

    * Officials allege he downloaded to every district computer a University
    of California-Berkeley program known as "SETI@home." SETI is short for
    the "Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence."

    According to the SETI Web site, the software SETI@home was released in 1999 by UC Berkeley space laboratory scientists so that individuals around the globe could volunteer their home computers to scan data collected by a satellite in Puerto Rico, effectively working like a super-computer. SETI software kicks on whenever a volunteer's computer is idle.

    Higley officials also found on computers another SETI-related program from UC-Berkeley, called "BOINC."

    District officials said they never agreed to its use, and, according to documents, told police that they had asked Niesluchowski to remove the program.

    SETI Web statistics show Niesluchowski became a participant in February 2000, a month after he was hired at Higley.

    Higley officials said the SETI program requires wattage to run, and therefore was an extra burden on computer processors and power usage. They allege several computer processors would burn out sooner than expected, and the SETI program's operation raised utility costs.

    HUSD officials also found the program interfered with classroom lessons.

    Superintendent Denise Birdwell said teachers who use a SMART Board - a large electronic screen connected to the computer that acts as a wipe-off board or blackboard at the front of the classroom - would find that in a middle of a lesson, the SMART Board had turned off.

    Birdwell declined to speak about several specifics about the case, including the ongoing criminal probe. Gilbert police have not responded to requests for information about their inquiry.

    Web discussions between SETI participants show Niesluchowski made a name for himself among members of the alien-searching community.

    He was known by the alias "NEZ" and was SETI's most active volunteer explorers for intelligent life, scoring more than 575 million "credits" - hours of data searching in nine years of participation.

    Admirers often pondered in their Internet chats about SETI@home in 2007: "What is NEZ? Who is NEZ?" Some even offered the theory that he "is a god."

    The criminal probe has led investigators to other school districts that have hired former Higley employees.

    Nieschulowski once worked as a consultant for Globe Unified School District, where investigators have found hundreds of computers there equipped with SETI@home software.

    Globe's superintendent was not immediately available to comment.

    Higley records show Nieschulowski earned more than $81,000 a year, and had been warned in a 2005-2006 review by then-Superintendent Joyce Lutrey and then-Business Manager Fred Stone of shortcomings in his job performance. Among the comments were:

    • "Purchasing decisions are made with no consultation or input from others."

    • "Budget perimeters are not defined or scoped."

    • "Decisions are made in isolation with no input or communication with stakeholders."

    Niesluchowski signed the review, agreeing to make improvements.
    http://www.azcentral.com/news/articl...liens1202.html

    Reading between the lines, there seems there is a failure to define policies on what is and is not allowed on the district's computers.
    Thorn
    "If you can't be a good example, then you'll just have to be a horrible warning." - Catherine Aird

  • #2
    Re: SETI@home as Malware?

    Two things;

    First, I remember a very similar circumstance from about 5 years ago or more. School computers, admin installing Seti, admins freaking out about evil malware.

    Second, it took them *HOW* long to notice that something was up? If he was already the top dog in '07, then presumably he started a couple years earlier and maybe as early at 2000 when he registered. I can't believe that no one noticed for 9 years. I get the feeling that there was a group effort among admins, building it into default images, etc. and that some admin person got their knickers in a twist at the guy and scapegoated him.

    Defiantly not a good thing to find missing equipment at his home, but there's no details about if it was actually stolen or just end of life gear that missed the dumpster.

    If everything was as the article states, yeah there is a cost associated with power and wear and tear. However due to the long time line, somewhere in there, someone had to know and OK'd it.

    As for not installing firewalls? I'm guessing that's some admin freaking out that each windows PC did'nt have the windows firewall turned on, not realizing that the whole school was behind something bigger and better. I've heard that screech before and know it's sound. Again, presumably no one else noticed this for how long?

    Complete conjecture is that this will quietly boil down to a near non-issue once the facts are in. If anyone sees a follow up, please pass it on.
    Never drink anything larger than your head!





    Comment


    • #3
      Re: SETI@home as Malware?

      I think the "losses" were extremely overestimated. Someone should have clarified in the article whether "equipment losses" in paragraph 4 refer to the equipment found at his home or the supposed wearing out of the equipment prematurely or both.

      I'm not sure what the school district's exact rules are, but as a technicality the man CAN say it was for "educational purposes" since SETI aids in UC Berkeley's research.

      Also, I can't help but point out the thing about the firewalls and the "personal information" - weren't these computers supposed to be used for educational purposes, not for myspace, personal email, etc.? I think someone needs to take a closer look at what these computers were REALLY being used for before they give Mr. Alien Hunter such a hard time.
      "Why is it drug addicts and computer afficionados are both called users? " - Clifford Stoll

      Comment


      • #4
        Re: SETI@home as Malware?

        Originally posted by AgentDarkApple View Post
        I think the "losses" were extremely overestimated. Someone should have clarified in the article whether "equipment losses" in paragraph 4 refer to the equipment found at his home or the supposed wearing out of the equipment prematurely or both.

        I'm not sure what the school district's exact rules are, but as a technicality the man CAN say it was for "educational purposes" since SETI aids in UC Berkeley's research.

        Also, I can't help but point out the thing about the firewalls and the "personal information" - weren't these computers supposed to be used for educational purposes, not for myspace, personal email, etc.? I think someone needs to take a closer look at what these computers were REALLY being used for before they give Mr. Alien Hunter such a hard time.
        I believe that the large portion of the losses is their calculated value for what was consumed by all the machines up and running all the time. Plus possible unexpected failures of equipment due to wear and tear on the machines.

        If you do some quick calculations on possible power consumption, it can get pretty pricey.

        (((365d x 24h) x 250w) x 5000PC's) x 7y = 76,650,000,000 watts consumed.

        I'm guessing this was a fairly big school, but even if it was only 500 machines, the amount of power consumed is still pretty big. I haven't run SETI for a long time, but when I did, I know it would consume 100% of the processor when nothing else was using it. Chances are they did a similar rough calculation as above to determine what their losses were in power. Had the machines been powered down then they wouldn't have consumed as much.

        The guy is definitely a fuckwad though, but I will concede to Thorn that the school bears some responsibility if they did not properly supervise or have proper policies in place to safeguard themselves against this kind of activity. Even so, this guy probably enjoyed the fame, what little bit if fame it was, from having his name highly ranked among the SETI group.

        No matter what, his installation of the application is gross misuse of employer resources. After all, Admin's don't like it when users misuse the the computers for their own purposes that aren't related to the work at hand. He should be held to that standard as well.
        Last edited by streaker69; December 2, 2009, 13:51.
        A third party security audit is the IT equivalent of a colonoscopy. It's long, intrusive, very uncomfortable, and when it's done, you'll have seen things you really didn't want to see, and you'll never forget that you've had one.

        Comment


        • #5
          Re: SETI@home as Malware?

          Originally posted by streaker69 View Post
          No matter what, his installation of the application is gross misuse of employer resources. After all, Admin's don't like it when users misuse the the computers for their own purposes that aren't related to the work at hand. He should be held to that standard as well.
          I can agree with that, and it kind of goes along with part of what I was trying to point out - the thing about the "personal information". In a pre-college education environment, what "personal information" is being transferred on the computers? I suspect that the teachers/students/whoever were also misusing the equipment playing around on myspace and facebook, emailing friends, etc. or no one would have mentioned the "personal information" part as a concern. If that is the case, they are also wasting resources, and their activities are not "work" related, with their job descriptions being to teach or to learn while at school.
          "Why is it drug addicts and computer afficionados are both called users? " - Clifford Stoll

          Comment


          • #6
            Re: SETI@home as Malware?

            Originally posted by AgentDarkApple View Post
            I can agree with that, and it kind of goes along with part of what I was trying to point out - the thing about the "personal information". In a pre-college education environment, what "personal information" is being transferred on the computers? I suspect that the teachers/students/whoever were also misusing the equipment playing around on myspace and facebook, emailing friends, etc. or no one would have mentioned the "personal information" part as a concern. If that is the case, they are also wasting resources, and their activities are not "work" related, with their job descriptions being to teach or to learn while at school.
            If it's a highschool, students could be using them to prepare college applications, they could be filling out school forms with personal information on them. The teachers could be using them for all kinds of things that are work related, but have personal information. Stuff related to HR. I'm not saying that people aren't doing that, because chances are it's happening. But much of the personal information could actually have been related to school.
            A third party security audit is the IT equivalent of a colonoscopy. It's long, intrusive, very uncomfortable, and when it's done, you'll have seen things you really didn't want to see, and you'll never forget that you've had one.

            Comment


            • #7
              Re: SETI@home as Malware?

              One other comment: If the school administration hadn't wanted specifically wanted to get rid of the guy, they could have turned the SETI part into a positive PR piece. It could have simply explained that when the PCs are idle, that the school district is "donating the PC resources to the SETI research being conducted by UC Berkley, ... blah, blah, blah, ..." "'It's an amazing educational opportunity for our student body' said Superintendent I. M. Bigwig. 'Our school system get to be part of a world wide effort involving distributed computing, ... more blah, blah, blah...'"
              Thorn
              "If you can't be a good example, then you'll just have to be a horrible warning." - Catherine Aird

              Comment


              • #8
                Re: SETI@home as Malware?

                Originally posted by streaker69 View Post
                If it's a highschool, students could be using them to prepare college applications, they could be filling out school forms with personal information on them. The teachers could be using them for all kinds of things that are work related, but have personal information. Stuff related to HR. I'm not saying that people aren't doing that, because chances are it's happening. But much of the personal information could actually have been related to school.
                Good point. I didn't think of that because when I was in high school we weren't allowed to use the school computers for much other than Office applications and typing programs I still think facebook and the like are in the "not ok" category during school hours though.

                I can't wait to see what this guy's lawyer comes up with as a defense, especially if the policies were not *legally* specific enough to exclude Mr. Alien Hunter's activities.
                "Why is it drug addicts and computer afficionados are both called users? " - Clifford Stoll

                Comment


                • #9
                  Re: SETI@home as Malware?

                  What's amusing about this whole story is that this guy is the #1 user on SETI@Home, he has by far the most credits (about 4x the second place user).

                  I think the media caught onto the SETI@Home angle ("aliens!!!") and ran with it. The story isn't really about that. It's about his (alleged) failure to do his job, taking computers home, etc.
                  "\x74\x68\x65\x70\x72\x65\x7a\x39\x38";

                  Comment


                  • #10
                    Re: SETI@home as Malware?

                    Originally posted by theprez98 View Post
                    What's amusing about this whole story is that this guy is the #1 user on SETI@Home, he has by far the most credits (about 4x the second place user).
                    Maybe SETI should take away all his credits since they were acquired inappropriately.
                    A third party security audit is the IT equivalent of a colonoscopy. It's long, intrusive, very uncomfortable, and when it's done, you'll have seen things you really didn't want to see, and you'll never forget that you've had one.

                    Comment


                    • #11
                      Re: SETI@home as Malware?

                      Originally posted by streaker69 View Post
                      Maybe SETI should take away all his credits since they were acquired inappropriately.
                      Like I mentioned above, the whole SETI angle is what made this story anything more than a local story. Remove SETI@Home and this is your run-of-the-mill "he did a crappy job" story. But mention aliens and suddenly it goes nationwide.
                      "\x74\x68\x65\x70\x72\x65\x7a\x39\x38";

                      Comment


                      • #12
                        Re: SETI@home as Malware?

                        Originally posted by theprez98 View Post
                        Like I mentioned above, the whole SETI angle is what made this story anything more than a local story. Remove SETI@Home and this is your run-of-the-mill "he did a crappy job" story. But mention aliens and suddenly it goes nationwide.
                        There's some truth to that, at least as far as those people go who have never heard of SETI. Although, from my perspective, it sure seems that the district is pushing a legitimate program as that something that's evil. After all, it's one of the four points mentioned as part of his separation.
                        Thorn
                        "If you can't be a good example, then you'll just have to be a horrible warning." - Catherine Aird

                        Comment


                        • #13
                          Re: SETI@home as Malware?

                          Originally posted by Thorn View Post
                          There's some truth to that, at least as far as those people go who have never heard of SETI. Although, from my perspective, it sure seems that the district is pushing a legitimate program as that something that's evil. After all, it's one of the four points mentioned as part of his separation.
                          Officials allege he downloaded to every district computer a University
                          of California-Berkeley program known as "SETI@home." SETI is short for
                          the "Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence."

                          Higley officials said the SETI program requires wattage to run, and therefore was an extra burden on computer processors and power usage. They allege several computer processors would burn out sooner than expected, and the SETI program's operation raised utility costs.
                          Maybe I'm missing where they even alluded to it being dark and evil. It would seem their points are valid.

                          Plus...

                          District officials said they never agreed to its use, and, according to documents, told police that they had asked Niesluchowski to remove the program.
                          Sounds like he was asked to remove it and didn't, that would be insubordination and probably enough reason for this termination.
                          A third party security audit is the IT equivalent of a colonoscopy. It's long, intrusive, very uncomfortable, and when it's done, you'll have seen things you really didn't want to see, and you'll never forget that you've had one.

                          Comment


                          • #14
                            Re: SETI@home as Malware?

                            Originally posted by streaker69 View Post
                            Maybe I'm missing where they even alluded to it being dark and evil. It would seem their points are valid.
                            If the program itself isn't the issue, why is it even mentioned as a reason to fire the guy?

                            Those points are only as valid as they are for any other program. I've yet to see a program that doesn't consume some resources. If they'd at least argued that the program consumed X amount of resources over a "typically idle" PCs, they might have a real issue. However, if they'd done that, then the question becomes have they done a comparison to full idle state vs. a running screen saver, or even SETI@home vs a screen saver. It would be interesting to see if they do ban screen savers (for example) have they fired (or even warned) any other employees who run screen savers of their kids or kittens for wasting resources.

                            Originally posted by streaker69 View Post
                            Sounds like he was asked to remove it and didn't, that would be insubordination and probably enough reason for this termination.
                            Sure, and it may be a valid reason for the firing, depending on the circumstances.

                            I still think there are some wider policy issues here, and in its actions that the district may be opening a huge can of worms.
                            Thorn
                            "If you can't be a good example, then you'll just have to be a horrible warning." - Catherine Aird

                            Comment


                            • #15
                              Re: SETI@home as Malware?

                              I'm just thinking about this from the legal angle (yes, I did a few pre-law classes back in the day). Personally, I'd love to see the school district's rulebook. If any use policies or employee policies did not EXPLICITLY include language that bans this type of activity but did make provision for "educational" use, then the fact that it was SETI would make a difference. But it would matter because it supports educational research, not because it had something to do with aliens of course. If the language in any of the policies is ambiguous or allows for undefined "use for educational purposes", then this could get some or all charges against the guy dropped. You guys are right that it's irresponsible of the guy to pull this crap in the first place and that the media is having way too much fun with the story though.
                              "Why is it drug addicts and computer afficionados are both called users? " - Clifford Stoll

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