Canadian university administrators say online threats a growing concern

Universities are being urged to put resources into monitoring online threats in light of a spate of incidents at North American institutions that intensified after the fatal mass shooting at an Oregon college in October.

See Full Article

Threats against several Canadian universities have been posted on blogs and online forums in recent months, including one case at Wilfrid Laurier University that triggered an hours-long lockdown of the Waterloo, Ont., campus just a couple of weeks after the carnage in Oregon.

The University of Toronto, McMaster University in Hamilton and Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ont., have also been targeted.

Administrators at several universities across Canada say online threats are a growing concern, and stress campus security and police have been working to keep up with emerging risks and harness technology to keep students, faculty and staff safe in case of emergencies.

But William Taylor, president of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators, said it's an uphill battle, particularly as social media grows more pervasive.

"There's always new technologies and new things coming online and frankly, law enforcement and institutions are always a little bit behind that in learning how to deal with it," he said.

And while copycat hoaxes largely account for the surge in online threats, it remains critical to quickly assess the credibility of each message, he said.

Officials at the University of British Columbia, the University of Calgary, McGill University, and the University of Toronto all say they take every threat seriously and continuously review their security protocols.

Each school has a system in place to get the word out during a crisis, often a mix of opt-in text alerts, email warnings, university-specific apps and websites, electronic signs and Twitter posts.

And most have tasked a few employees, typically in the public affairs department, with keeping an eye out for online threats and flagging them for police when spotted.

Taylor said that's no longer a realistic approach.

"If you have somebody just sitting there watching it, it's not a highly efficient system. They're not there 24 hours a day and they're not data mining broadly; it's usually very close to the campus... and it's usually specifically those things where it's addressed to the college," he said.

Many institutions south of the border now hire data-mining services to comb the Internet for concerning posts, which he said is much more effective -- but also more expensive.

"There is a cost, there is, and it's unfortunate but you have to put resources toward things in order to address them," he said.

At Dalhousie University in Halifax, administrators rely on a combination of outside data mining and internal social media engagement.

"None of us could pay attention to all the -- you know, Facebook, and Twitter and LinkedIn and Yik Yak and all these things, but there are aggregator services that will look for any mention of your university...so that when those are mentioned in any social networks you get forwarded a response," said Dwight Fischer, the university's chief information officer.

Social media also plays a role in responding to online threats and combating misinformation, university officials said. But knowing how much information to release can be a challenge.

The University of Toronto faced criticism in September after it chose not to disclose details of a threat that was posted on a local blog. Images of the post quickly circulated online and the union representing teaching assistants at the university said the threat targeted the sociology and women's studies programs.

The university made the decision after consulting police, which deemed the risk low, said spokeswoman Althea Blackburn-Evans. Security was nonetheless beefed up on all campuses, she said.

The issue of online threats is on the radar of the Ontario Association of College and University Security Administrators, to which the university belongs, Blackburn-Evans said.

"In the new year, this group will be coordinating efforts to address online threats and best practices of response and action," she said in an email.

The recent incidents likely flow from a similar trend in the U.S, said Taylor of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators.

While cyber crime has been a growing concern for years, there has been an "onslaught" of online threats levelled at American universities since the Oct. 1 shooting that resulted in 10 deaths at Umpqua Community College in Oregon, and Canadian universities aren't immune to the phenomenon, he said.

"It's different than we've had any other year before," Taylor said.

A 4chan post that preceded the Oregon shooting read: "Don't go to school if you are in the northwest. happening thread will be posted tomorrow morning."

A similar message was posted on the forum weeks later warning people not to go to Wilfrid Laurier's science building. A 22-year-old man in London, England, has been charged with malicious communication and released on bail.



Advertisements

Latest Canada & World News

  • 'I cannot promise we will never make another mistake': Quebec cardinal on sex abuse summit

    Canada News CTV News
    Quebec Cardinal Marc Ouellet says Pope Francis' historic summit on preventing sex abuse in the clergy is a good first step but says "I cannot promise we will never make another mistake." Ouellet told CTV News' Paul Workman that the Vatican is taking the allegations of sex abuse seriously, citing the historic summit as the first step in reconciliation. Source
  • Polish activists pull down statue of priest in abuse protest

    World News CTV News
    WARSAW, Poland -- Activists in Poland pulled down a statue of a priest early Thursday after increasing allegations that he sexually abused minors, a stunt they said was to protest the failure of the Polish Catholic Church in resolving the problem of clergy sex abuse. Source
  • Catalan secessionists block highways, train tracks in strike

    World News CTV News
    BARCELONA, Spain -- Strikers backing Catalonia's secession from Spain blocked major highways, train tracks and roads across the northeastern region on Thursday to protest the trial of a dozen separatist leaders. The general strike was organized by small unions of pro-independence workers and students. Source
  • Louisiana woman charged in shooting of her pet llama, Earl

    World News CTV News
    OPELOUSAS, La. -- A Louisiana woman is accused of shooting her pet llama named Earl who she says attacked her. News outlets report 67-year-old Madeline Bourgeois told St. Landry Parish Sheriff's deputies that Earl had attacked her last week while she was working in her pasture. Source
  • More than 150 IS militants handed over to Iraq from Syria

    World News CTV News
    BAGHDAD -- U.S.-backed Syrian forces fighting the Islamic State group in Syria handed over more than 150 Iraqi members of the group to Iraq, the first batch of several to come, an Iraqi security official said Thursday. Source
  • Students abused at Catholic school for deaf boys in Verona seek closure at Pope's summit

    World News CBC News
    Alessandro Vantini uses crude gestures to illustrate the way three priests abused him throughout his entire childhood at a school for deaf boys in the northern Italian city of Verona. He said one clergyman regularly hit him with a stick and sodomized him. Source
  • Ottawa could face four class-action lawsuits over $165M error at Veterans Affairs

    Canada News CBC News
    The federal government now faces four proposed class-action lawsuits over a $165 million accounting error at Veterans Affairs that shortchanged more than 250,000 former soldiers, sailors and aircrew, CBC News has learned. The latest claim was filed this week by the Ottawa law firm headed by retired colonel Michel Drapeau. Source
  • First post-SNC-Lavalin polls look bad for Trudeau Liberals

    Canada News CBC News
    The fallout from the SNC-Lavalin affair is only beginning to rain down on Justin Trudeau and his Liberal government but it seems to be having an impact — one that could put the Liberals on track to defeat in this fall's federal election. Source
  • Pope opens sex abuse summit amid outcry from survivors

    World News CTV News
    VATICAN CITY -- Pope Francis has opened a high-level summit of church leaders on preventing clergy sex abuse, hoping to impress on bishops from around the world that the problem is global and requires a global response. Source
  • Vatican's legal procedures for handling sex abuse, explained

    World News CTV News
    VATICAN CITY -- For centuries, the Vatican's canon law system busied itself with banning books and dispensing punishments that included burnings at the stake for heretics. These days, the Vatican office that eventually replaced the Roman Catholic Inquisition is knee-deep in processing clergy sex abuse cases. Source