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Clearinghouse Replaced with Messaging for Dorms

By Eric Sit

With the elimination of the Clearinghouse computerized tracking system from dormitories this year, the process of keeping track of freshmen during Residence and Orientation Week has undergone some changes.

Dormitory workers will no longer take messages from any fraternities, sororities, or independent living groups. They will take telephone messages only from MIT administration members and for medical emergencies.

Dormitory rush workers had complained in years past of the time-consuming process of continuously updating the Clearinghouse system. "There really wasn't much of a need for Clearinghouse," said R/O worker Malia M. Jackson '98.

Nevertheless, the demand for some type of message system for freshmen still exists. "We want freshmen to have the option to get messages. We want to keep their options open," said Dormitory Council Judicial Committee Chair Ernest D. Aguayo '97.

With this year's new dormitory message system, FSILGs can leave a paper message or send e-mail to the R/O Center in the Student Center. Dormcon will then deliver messages to desks at dormitories, where freshmen can pick them up.

"Dormcon was pleased to work with the [Interfraternity Council] and make this agreement," Aguayo said.

"There is usually a flood of messages in the morning, but it trickles down during the day," said Dormcon President Christopher H. Barron '97. "The messaging system works, but we have no idea how well."

It takes anywhere from five minutes to one hour for a message to get to a freshman, Jackson said.

Clearinghouse has evolved

"One thing that people forget, or just don't know, is that Clearinghouse in its current form is relatively new. The system is constantly evolving and probably will continue to evolve for as long as it is around," said Clearinghouse administrator Jonathan Z. Litt G.

Before the first computerized Clearinghouse came into existence in the 1970s, legend has it that people manned phones in 26-100, writing the names of all the freshmen on the blackboards, Litt said.

Last spring and summer, Dormcon contacted the Office of Residence and Campus Activities and the IFC with alternative messaging plans.

"This year, we're not going to put any blame on why the solutions had to come out so late," said Barron. He cited miscommunication as the main problem.

"Definitely we need some changes," Barron said. Dormcon does not want to continue to run the messaging system on its own. "We get no compensation from other organizationsŠ but we knew that we would be running it all ourselves when we made this plan."

Barron is positive about the system. Since the FSILGs are all using Clearinghouse and thus are all computerized, they can easily e-mail the R/O office with messages, he said. Dormitory desk workers do not have to do as much work since all the mail is sorted for them, Barron said.

Barron is glad that the messaging system is working, especially considering that it was "something that came together at the last minute."

Freshmen difficult to contact

The absence of Clearinghouse in dormitories this year has made FSILG's attempts to get in touch with freshmen more difficult since freshmen can be tracked only when they are visiting other FSILGs, said Assistant Dean for RCA Neal H. Dorow, adviser to FSILGs.

Contacting freshmen "is tougher in that fraternities don't know whether a freshman is in a dorm or not," Dorow said. "It's more of a guessing game."

Some groups have been unsure that the system is working. "Some FSILGs call us up wondering if the message got to the freshman," Aguayo said.

One freshman has opted to make himself invisible on the Clearinghouse system this year, Dorow said. "He was being interrupted too many times when he was rushing," he said.

The freshman, however, is continuing to rush fraternities. The case was not that he was trying to hide from any one fraternity but rather that "too many fraternities were trying to talk to him," he said.

The choice to make oneself invisible exists for freshmen to get away from problems like that, Dorow said. "It's there for a good reason, [but] we hope that a lot of people won't need" to make use of it.

It is not in fraternities' best interest to hound freshmen with messages through the system. "If someone is being really harassed by a fraternity, he's not going to join anyway," Dorow said. "The fraternities know this, and the R/O workers know this."

Clearinghouse is relatively secure

"We have not seen any malicious breaches of security since the system has gone up," Litt said.

"The first year the system was up, there was a friendly probing of the system by a well-known student computer organization," Litt said. "They did succeed in finding one security bug that was quickly noticed and fixed."

The main threat to security is not an active one, Litt said. Rather, it is the fact that people who connect to Clearinghouse with an unsafe telnet connection "can have all of their activity surreptitiously monitored by someone snooping on the network," he said.

"This is a common situation at MIT, and people who care about protecting their privacy can easily connect in a secure manner," he said.

In future years, Clearinghouse may be more customizable for users. "It was designed to be portable and maintainable, and so far it appears to have met this goal," Litt said.

This year, the server has proved reliable, and the client software has rarely crashed, as it had it past years, Litt said.

ŒSecurity without obscurity'

Clearinghouse's network protocol seems to have reached a point of stability, and the source code and network protocol may be published, Litt said.

The way the system works has been keep private, but there is no reason that the system can not maintain "security without obscurity," Litt said.

One good reason not to publish the protocol "is that it reserves us the right to change the protocol whenever we want without having to worry about publicizing those upgrades," Litt said.

Other stumbling blocks involved in the publishing procedure include the amount of time needed to prepare a document and the fact that the Clearinghouse system is run and debugged only once a year, Litt said.