Working in foreign countries brings computer access issues


Pitt employees who travel oversees to countries against which the United States has embargoes or sanctions — from Iran and Cuba to South Sudan and the Crimea region of Ukraine — shouldn’t try to remotely access University resources, Allen A. DiPalma told the latest meeting of the University Senate’s Computing and Information Technology Committee on Jan. 24.

DiPalma, director of Pitt’s Office of Trade Compliance, warned that connecting to Pitt computer resources through a VPN (virtual private network), or even using email to do Pitt work overseas, could violate federal rules that ban “exports” to embargoed countries — which includes information generated through one’s work for Pitt.

“If someone in Iran gets access to one of our publicly facing websites” such as the University’s library catalog, DiPalma said, “that is not controlled.” But trying to access Pitt-held materials — everything from the texts of journal articles in those very same Pitt libraries to Pitt faculty research material or computing center resources — would likely require this transaction to be licensed by the federal government.

Each individual situation is different, DiPalma said, suggesting faculty members who plan to work in a foreign country contact the Pitt travel office, which will bring his office’s expertise to bear on any sticky issues.

U.S. travellers to embargoed countries may apply for a license — a temporary, specific exception to the ban on accessing information — from the Office of Foreign Asset Controls in the Department of the Treasury. This same agency has general licenses, with pre-set exemptions for certain activities, for which DiPalma’s office also can apply. But license approval or denial can take up to a year.

Ralph Roskies, vice chancellor for research computing and director of the Center for Research Computing, asked other meeting attendees whether Pitt IT had a policy to deny VPN access from computers in embargoed countries.

“I don’t think anyone here knows that,” said Dwight Helfrich, Pitt IT’s employee information staff person, also attending the meeting.

“I’m more concerned about inadvertent use” than malicious use of Pitt resources in embargoed countries overseas, Roskies added. “Why don’t we have a policy” restricting VPN access based on IP address, he asked.

“We may have a policy against that now — we just don’t know it,” said committee member Alex Labrinidis of the School of Computing and Information.

Unblocking access to Pitt computers from one overseas country for one person — should that person get a federal license for access — also would be impractical, DiPalma said.

Overall, said committee chair Michael Spring, of the computing school, “To be safe, we shouldn’t be accessing resources at Pitt” from embargoed countries. And travelling Pitt employees should use a VPN even in unsanctioned places, he said: “If you’re in England, use VPN.”

“If you’re at Starbucks on Forbes,” added Kenny Doty, a Swanson School of Engineering staff member and a Staff Council representative on the committee.

Canvas update

Helfrich of Pitt IT reported that Pitt faculty testing the new online classroom management system, Canvas, which will replace Blackboard in the summer semester, were now employing Canvas in 375 classes involving 6,800 students. Faculty who are not early adopters can still request a demo course from Pitt IT.

He said that 93 percent of faculty using Canvas today found it to be as good or better than Blackboard. Most Canvas users were opting to start fresh in creating courses, rather than transferring courses from Blackboard wholesale. The former operation took an average of seven hours, he said, but transferring a spring course to the summer or later session would take a single click.

By early February, every faculty member teaching in the summer will have access to Canvas, Helfrich said. Pitt IT will be automatically transferring all courses taught over the past two years from Blackboard by mid-June (without student content, such as quiz answers and projects).

For older courses that a faculty member wishes to preserve by transferring them to Canvas, the faculty member may contact Pitt IT to request a transfer — even after June, he said.

Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at or 412-758-4859.


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