The malware danger posed by some social networking websites is now being used by library officials in Lexingon, South Carolina, as a justification for blocking access to many popular social networking websites. The two justifications reported for the content filtering are:

  • Local law enforcement officers report that such sites are used to coordinate gang activity.
  • Network security experts say the sites are becoming prime targets for malicious hackers.

David Fellows, chairman of the Lexington County Library Board and owner of a computer business, is quoted in the article as saying:

We knew it was going to be a problem for some folks … and it was not done without a tremendous amount of thought, and a tremendous amount of research.

I wonder if the research conducted by David and others on behalf the library included reading Doug Johnson’s article “A Proposal for Banning Pencils?” If not, perhaps we’ll see libraries as well as schools in South Carolina banning both pencils and scissors from libraries and classrooms next week, since those tools are infrequently misused by library patrons as well as students. As paternalistic leaders taking action to vigorously protect the masses from themselves, library officials certainly might want to consider a scissor and pencil ban. Or, perhaps they can brush up on their Latin as Doug encourages us:

Ex abusu non arguitur in usum. (The abuse of a thing is no argument against its use.)

With respect to the malware threat from social networking sites, I wonder if David Fellows and others conducting “extensive research” discovered the comparatively paltry malware vulnerability posed by Linux and Macintosh computers? Most likely, like many people advising organizations about computer operating system purchases and support, David may be myopically focused on continuing to use Windows-based systems despite compelling reasons (including the malware threat) to consider alternatives.

A year ago, Vint Cerf reported that in his estimation one fourth of ALL computers connected to the Internet have malware and are part of growing botnet rings. A less advertised, but none-the-less relevant aspect to this report, is that the vast majority of these “compromised” computer systems are running a variant of the Windows operating system. Clint Ecker, in a March 30, 2006 article for ArsTechnica (“A pair of security-related Apple articles”) acknowledged that a very limited number of Mac OS computers running “3rd party PHP applications” have also been found susceptible to malware, but encouraged Mac users not to be publicly cocky about this. That may be good advice, but the fact remains that millions of malware programs exist today “in the wild” on the Internet for Windows OS systems. Comparably speaking, there are virtually ZERO malware threats for Macintosh users– especially mainstream users not running “3rd party PHP applications.” Security vulnerabilities have been found on all computer platforms, but there is a big difference between an identified security vulnerability and an actual malware epidemic.

Lots of alternatives exist for libraries and schools serious (as they should be) about addressing web-delivered security threats. Keeping software patched and up to date is a great start. Security software like DeepFreeze is often a good solution for public-use computers in libraries as well as computer labs, but network-based security solutions which dynamically filter content (instead of simply “blacklisting sites”) can provide much more robust protection for computer systems and networks than network policies which support only simple URL blocking.

Security threats are real and do need to be addressed, but “blocking social networking sites” does not offer a panacea. Network administrators as well as organizational leaders need to remain open to a variety of proposals, including looking at the total cost of ownership (TCO) of utilizing and supporting alternative operating systems to both meet user’s functional requirements as well as minimize security risks.

Hopefully the library patrons of Lexington, South Carolina, will provide David and his team of researchers with copies of Doug Johnson’s article on banning pencils, and initiate a dialog about both the utility as well as desirability of banning something because of its misuse by a relatively small number of users. Given the total number of Internet users and webpages today, I feel confident those utilizing the web “to coordinate gang activity” comprise a very small percentage indeed.

Thanks to David Burt for alerting me to this original article from Lexington, South Carolina.

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5 Responses to Malware dangers on social networking sites used to justify blocking

  1. Alec Couros says:

    Thanks for picking up on the Linux/Mac alternative Wes. If they are going to ban social networks because of Malware, then they should have banned Windows-based machines a long time ago.

  2. Peter Rock says:

    My understanding is that both Mac and GNU/Linux offer a better defense to Windows due to their modular design (both follow POSIX standards). However, GNU/Linux offers the best defense due to its auditability and modifiability. That is, it’s free software.

    And of course, Windows is the most popular operating system so it is reasonable to assume it is targeted more often.

  3. […] the Silly Pencil Argument! Okay, I understand the basic premise of the pencil argument (and here). But, come on now… this is far from an equal analogy! Here is what Doug Johnson had to say […]

  4. […] I understand the basic premise of the pencil argument (and here). But, come on now… this is far from an equal analogy! Here is what Doug Johnson had to say […]

  5. Jennifer says:

    I’m working on a compilation of the best L&L articles from the past 5 years, and I would love you and your readers to visit my blog and nominate your favorites. I could count your mention of Doug Johnson’s column as one of your favorites–I know it is one of mine.

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