Laptop Security: Covering the Bases

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Texas school district issues laptops to students, but not before making sure they're equipped with filtering, firewall, and virus protection

Students at two Laredo Independent School District middle schools became the lucky recipients of 3,000 laptops last year, thanks to a PIP grant that funded the purchase of the Dell computers. Used during the school day, the laptops are also toted home at night, allowing students to use them for both educational study and leisure. It's the latter that led the school district to take one additional step before handing out the machines: equip them with filtering, antivirus and firewall protection that would keep both computer and user secure in the unpredictable online world.

"Our biggest dilemma was figuring out how to provide content-filtering at home," said Hilario Solis, software support specialist for the Texas school district, which comprises 26 schools and employs 20 computer technicians, five of whom are dedicated to working on the laptops. With 5,000 total Dell Inspiron 1150s and Dell Latitude 620s, the district reviewed its options and decided on Sunnyvale, CA-based Fortinet's security applications to provide content filtering, firewall and antivirus protection.

The district is using FortiClient Mobile, a unified security agent designed for personal computers, including personal firewall, antivirus, antispyware, antispam and Web content filtering. FortiClient's protection agent is powered by FortiGuard security, and monitored through FortiManager, a centralized tracking and reporting system.

The district licensed the software for four years at a cost of approximately $23 per unit, according to Solis. Getting the system up and running was fairly straightforward and took just a few hours, said Solis, whose team also had to configure the system in a way that allowed students to access it while off campus. "By Day 2 we were up and running," said Solis, "with students receiving antivirus updates and content filtering on a regular basis."

Within a few months, the district's technology team was sending out configurations in the form of templates, defining what it deemed to be "unacceptable" content, based on the school's acceptable-use policy. Since installing the security system on the laptops, Solis said, the district has seen a marked decrease in the number of computer viruses infiltrating the laptops and the level of unacceptable content being accessed on the machines.

Laredo Independent School District's technicians are also less taxed and can focus their efforts on hardware issues, rather than grappling with software configuration problems brought on by the downloading of video games via the Internet, for example. "When students would download games (which the district considers unacceptable content) it would mess up the operating system and configurations," said Solis. "Our technicians would have to reload the machines with the operating system and troubleshoot back and forth to get the problem solved."

Through FortiManager, an integrated monitoring and management solution, the district receives active reporting from all laptops, regardless of whether they are on or off campus. "We can follow up on exactly where certain laptops are pinging," said Solis. "From there, we get more detailed sketches and actively circumvent any problems by, say, denying access to those IP addresses and/or Web sites."

Chris Simmons, director of product strategy at Fortinet, said the school district's rollout was different than many others in that the security solution had to be installed on the laptops to allows for protection both on its internal network (while the students are on campus) and externally (as they travel elsewhere). "Each laptop had to include personal firewall protection, and a utility to protect the students from inappropriate content to ensure that the students don't access sites that they shouldn't be," said Simmons.

With two campuses enrolled in the laptop program, and every teacher also using a computer to track attendance and grades, Solis said the school is pleased with the results of its security choice. "We've been able to maintain a much better level of security and monitoring through the system," Solis explained. "Our teachers who are grading papers at home no longer have to worry about having spyware on their units, which have become much more reliable and secure as a result of our investment."

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About the author: Bridget McCrea is a business and technology writer in Clearwater, FL. She can be reached at bridgetmc@earthlink.net.

Proposals for articles and tips for news stories, as well as questions and comments about this publication, should be submitted to David Nagel, executive editor, at dnagel@1105media.com.

About the Author

Bridget McCrea is a business and technology writer in Clearwater, FL. She can be reached at bridgetmc@earthlink.net.

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