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Day November 1, 2010

After Water Advisory, Rethink Bottled Water

During the recent boil water advisory, I cowered in fear of what mysterious death-inducing microbes might be lurking in the innocuously clear water flowing readily from my faucet. My housemates and I threw huge pots of water on the stove and hoped for the best. Using boiled water to drink, wash dishes, and brush my teeth was extremely inconvenient — but it made me think about people who do not have access to clean water (let alone a running faucet) as a fact of life. Water has been declared a human right by the United Nations, and yet over a billion people lack access to clean water. It is staggering that so many live without one of life’s most basic necessities. Americans easily forget that the municipal water system we so readily take for granted would be considered an unthinkable luxury for a large proportion of the globe. While we should be thankful for what we have, it seems callous not to make an effort in assisting those who are so dramatically less fortunate.

Americans spend around $10 billion on bottled water every year. We are paying for water in a form that is not only environmentally irresponsible but also unnecessary health-wise. In most communities in the United States, municipal tap water is of the same quality as bottled water. For those not convinced, buying a water filter will further purify their tap water. Drinking Water for India, a Lawrenceville-based, student-run nonprofit, builds wells in Indian villages for $1,000 each, serving some of the 200 million in the country who do not have access to clean water. If instead of spending $10 billion on redundant water we shared this disposable income with those who actually are in dire need of water access, 200 million Indians’ water needs would be met — using only a one hundredth of the money we spend unnecessarily on bottled water.

*Please visit DrinkingWaterforIndia.org or find a member of TCNJ’s Amnesty International, or Water Watch to donate the dollar you were about to spend on a bottle of water to someone in genuine need.

BY ANYA SARETZKY

ATHEIST: Put Religion in Public Schools

The Pew Forum’s recent study detailing the abysmal religious literacy demonstrated by most Americans is disturbing, but not at all surprising. The smear campaign waged against Muslims over the past few months has been a painful reminder of how–especially in a country where gross ignorance of religion is the norm–opportunistic blowhards can easily manipulate matters of alleged supernatural significance. With vast majorities unable to correctly answer even the most basic questions about Islam, for example, is it any wonder that an innocuous Islamic center in Lower Manhattan could spur so much misinformation and hysteria?

A Safe Connection?

The time is 3 A.M., and you are stuck in front a glowing computer screen writing a last minute research paper. For the next few hours the Internet remains inoperable, and your nearly complete paper still lacks some very vital information that could be found nowhere else at that hour. Whether you are utilizing the research tools on Google Scholar or trying to de-stress on Facebook, the one thing you are probably using (or trying to avoid using) is the Internet.  Now imagine the possibility of the College’s network tumbling down amidst an ill-fated attack by some students’ virus-infected computer.

This was far from an uncommon occurrence in previous years at the College, but starting in the fall of 2009, the number of incidents slowly decreased. The reason, according to the College’s Information Technology department, is SafeConnect.

The security program started in 2008 as a trial run for residents of Eickhoff Hall and took effect campus-wide the following fall; some oppose the application and the shroud of secrecy surrounding its operation on campus, while most ignore it as a nuisance. Two years after its installation, what has SafeConnect done for us, and what might it be doing without our knowledge?

To many TCNJ students, SafeConnect appears as a log-in page when accessing the Internet from campus, and in the form of a “policy key” application upon arriving on campus to ensure your anti-virus software and operating system are up to date.

Many students on campus have complained about receiving faulty messages demanding that they download and install the Policy Key, despite already having done so.  “Half of the time I’ll log in and it’ll give me that message, and then three minutes and 50 refreshes later, it’ll tell me I’m behind a router or using a NAT device when I’m connected at the library via wireless and that I’m quarantined,” said Matthew Tom-Wolverton, a senior computer science major, who then concluded “and that’s when it works correctly.” This policy key is relatively innocuous, sitting in the background, ostensibly keeping an eye on the student to make sure they do not do anything TCNJ would not approve of.

When contacted to discuss the history and concerns surrounding the system, IT Security Manager for the College Alan Bowen declined to comment except to say, “The SafeConnect system provides electronic enforcement of the computing access agreement. The sophistication of network based attacks is increasing and by ensuring that our community meets a minimum standard of computer security everybody benefits.”

Class of 2010 computer science major, Rich Defrancisco, believes the goals of keeping campus virus-free and limiting file-sharing traffic are acceptable, but believes that the College is going about it in the wrong way. When asked what an acceptable alternative would be, he said, “Don’t make us run spyware on our own computers. I don’t think there is anything wrong with restricting our access in the closed community of campus, but I do think there is something wrong when the restrictions stop being on their hardware and start being on ours.”

Former TCNJ student Andrew Timmes had a much stronger reaction to SafeConnect’s perceived problems despite having graduated before the system was put into campus-wide use. In a public posting on Facebook, he said: “I’m highly opposed to the TCNJ-sanctioned spyware called SafeConnect. I understand that as students using a public service, we have to adhere to certain rules to utilize TCNJ’s infrastructure. I do not, however, agree with TCNJ’s method of enforcing said rules by infringing upon our privacy.”

Alan Bowen was contacted again to respond to these sentiments, but did not return emails.

So why do some students refer to SafeConnect as “spyware?”  Wikipedia defines spyware as “a type of malware that is installed on computers and collects little bits of information at a time about users without their knowledge. The presence of spyware is typically hidden from the user, and can be difficult to detect.”

SafeConnect does not hide its presence, but it never announces itself as an icon in the system tray or an entry in the computer’s programs list. Only an ambiguous description is available on the College’s IT security webpage, where the College freely admits that the software surreptitiously collects information from users: “[TCNJ] username, IP address, MAC address, and security profile of your machine gathered from the state of your anti-virus software, operating system update settings, and any peer to peer file sharing applications.” Any information gathered will not be transmitted off campus, they assure us, but it is stored on-site for an undefined period of time. To date, no one has been charged as a result of this information, but it is unclear what purpose this gathered information does serve.

Impulse Point, LLC., manufacturer of SafeConnect, describes it on their site as “a more secure, reliable, and predictable IT network infrastructure that is easy and cost-effective to deploy and maintain.” Anne Torgler, Marketing Manager for Impulse Point, confirmed the software system operator’s ability to view information on students’ computers with the Policy Key installed, adding “an organization may also build custom policies based on the existence or non-existence of file types, registry settings, services, and processes on individual endpoint devices.”  This essentially means that the College (our ‘system operator’  verifying file existence), can not only see exactly which programs are being run on our computers, but use this ability to identify and block any program or system configuration.

Despite the intentional vagueness from Bowen and lack of information on the College’s website, an employee of User Support Services who wishes to remain anonymous did comment on TCNJ’s SafeConnect capabilities, “SafeConnect has the ability to look at a list of processes, but they didn’t have it turned on until now.” File-sharing programs themselves are legal in the US, though they are often used to transmit copyrighted works —which is illegal. The College has made the decision to block entirely some prominent file-sharing technologies, such as Bittorrent, a popular method of distribution for updates to computer games, as well as for Linux, a free computer operating system, and infamously, DC++.

Torgler did specifically deny that SafeConnect has the ability to view web browser history or download history. The openness of Impulse Point’s staff came as a great surprise, as finding information from the various educational institutions implementing SafeConnect was difficult, although they did not explicitly decline to divulge any specific information as IT Manager of the College Alan Bowen did.

The ultimate goal of SafeConnect is admirable, but the College wields its position as a local monopoly of Internet service to enforce it. In an arena where multiple Internet Service Providers could compete, a provider using such invasive and secretive methods as the College is using on its residential students would most likely be forced out of business fast.

Unfortunately, residential students don’t have any easy alternatives to the Internet service that the College bundles with their tuition fee. While it is possible to get commercial broadband Internet access as a resident at the College, it is often more expensive and more complicated, and the College’s website is unclear whether or not it would even be possible to opt out of paying the Computer Access Fee.

The next time your computer wrongfully receives a frustrating quarantine message, or you are blocked from using an application that works perfectly fine at your home, you may recall that this is the price the College has deemed acceptable for a secure network on your behalf. What all residential students must decide is whether these incursions into their privacy are worth that security, and whether they trust the College to make that decision for them.

Recently, Impulse Point has announced a new version of SafeConnect that has improved support for mobile devices and video game systems.  Whether this means that those devices will now be required to install some version of the Policy Key required on Windows and Macintosh computers is not immediately clear.  It is also not clear if The College has already completed this update, or if it has any plans of doing so. The new update will also support an “emergency broadcast messaging” capability, and improves the ability of SafeConnect operators to manage and observe users’ information in real time.

BY MATT FLAMENBAUM

LGBT Thoughts

Recently, news of Tyler Clementi’s suicide has pervaded most media. The circumstances surrounding his death, as well as his youth and promise, add to the tragedy of his unfortunate choice. We should mourn Tyler fully, use his story as a lesson, and perhaps, in the future, think before we act. It must be understood at the outset that this article is not intended to undermine this heartbreaking incident. However, the omnipresence of Tyler’s story is an opportune catalyst by which I may air a thought that has been on my mind for some time. It is simply this: gay men receive much more attention than gay women. Anyone who has friends or a computer knows about Tyler. But how many readers have heard about Carol and Laura Stutte?

The Stuttes are a lesbian couple from Vonore, TN, and their house burned down in early September 2010. An article detailing the incident appeared on wate.com, and stated that the couple believed the fire was arson – more precisely, a hate crime. This belief seems justified; the word “QUEERS” was spray-painted on their garage, and in August the couple had complained to the police of harassment from their neighbor. The article says the neighbor “threatened to kill them and burn down their house.” It was by sheer luck that no one was home that night; the couple had been too fearful to return to their property. There has been no follow-up story on the police investigation. More details on the story can be found on wate.com, but suffice it to say, this was a serious, intentional, and violent hate crime that went entirely unnoticed.

Photo by Bob Fowler/News Sentinel

To be sure I wasn’t the only person in the dark on the Stutte’s story, I typed their names into Google trends, which uses keywords to produce line graphs showing the history and frequency with which those words were searched on Google (or bar graphs showing which countries searched those terms the most, and in which languages.)  Now, allow me to give some perspective – if you type “cat banana” into the search bar, you get a fair amount of information; the first searches for “cat banana” start in late 2008 (a stressful year, I imagine) and then stop almost immediately. They do not appear again until early 2009, and those terms have been searched with relative frequency ever since – mostly within the Philippines. Type in “Tyler Clementi” to Google trends, and you will see a huge search spike in recent weeks. Type in “Carol Stutte” or “Laura Stutte” or “Carol and Laura Stutte,” and Google trends will tell you it has too little data to form a graph.

I’m happy for the attention that the LGBT community gets, no matter how it is skewed. Social change sometimes takes baby steps. However, I would hope that members within the community would take measures to rectify this obvious inequity. And then, perhaps in the future, no one will have to point out the obvious irony of unequal attention within a movement fighting for equal rights.

BY SARAH STRYKER

The Cold Lore

My fascination with Antarctica always struck me as a strange, random blip of an interest—something that I was drawn to for no apparent reason. I viewed it as a divergent fascination, separated from my other passions and pastimes — an isolated hobby of sorts that didn’t necessarily fit into the rest of my life; or, if I was feeling a bit new-agey, perhaps an inkling of a past, more adventurous life. Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton’s journals kept me up nights, a map of the barren white continent has remained taped to my wall for years now, and every few months I inevitably end up on various websites, researching future employment possibilities down South—real South.

One Nation March

Fighting for What’s Right (and Against the Right)

There are not many opportunities in a lifetime when a person’s hope for humanity is restored. When trapped in a hailstorm of bigotry, hate speech, political and corporate greed, and bla- tant media lies, it becomes difficult to hope to be rescued from the quicksand. In a society willing to spend more on locking up the bodies of youths than on educating and opening minds, this generation is growing disillusioned with contemporary polity. It is easy to feel like a small, garbled voice lost in the furor of a bustling city and lose the motivation to fight back.

On October 2nd, tens of thousands of small voices turned into a voice greater than could be imagined (or, at the very least, greater than the voices of Glenn Beck’s rally!).

The One Nation Working Together march was a rally of thousands — of unions, organizations, and student groups —

marching to put America back to work, demanding good jobs, equal justice, and quality public education for all. Despite this main goal, the vision of the march was whatever the attend- ees made of it. Topics from LGBTQ rights to Palestinian lib- eration were displayed on the myriad signs of the marchers.

It’s never too late to stand up and fight the Right. With a voice as powerful as the one that bellowed on October 2nd, I don’t doubt that victory lies in our future. We come from all ethnic backgrounds, faiths or non-faiths, sexual orientations, gen- der identities, nationalities, races, immigration statuses and abilities; and we demand a society of equality — a society with liberty and justice for ALL, not some. Stand up now and fight for full equality — liberty and justice not for some, but for all.

BY NAT SOWINSKI