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University hack: Not much dialogue, but lots of attention for hacker group

TeamGhostShell turns attention from China and 'Hellfire' to higher education

By Taylor Armerding, CSO
October 05, 2012 08:25 AM ET

CSO - Perhaps stealing personal information from major universities is not the best way to start a serious dialogue on the problems of higher education. But the hacker group TeamGhostShell's recent dump of records hacked from 100 major universities throughout the world clearly got their attention -- and the security community's.

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Analysts are still sorting through the extent of the hacks of Harvard, Cambridge, Johns Hopkins, Princeton, Tokyo University, Cornell, University of Michigan, University of Rome, Stanford University and New York University, which the group has called Project WestWind.

While the group's leader, "DeadMellox" claims to have posted more than 120,000 records, Aaron Titus, chief privacy officer for Identity Finder told ZDNet. "Identity Finder could only confirm around 40,000 accounts exposed." That, he said is still a large number, "and it is possible that the hackers had access to far more."

But DeadMellox took pains to assert that the group, which operates under the Anonymous umbrella, could have done much more damage. "We tried to keep the leaked information to a minimum, so just around 120.000+ accounts and records are here, leaving in their servers hundreds of thousands more," the message said. "When we got there, we found out that a lot of them have malware injected. No surprise there since some have credit card information stored."

The group's general complaints about education focused on teaching regulations, politics, tuition fees and a lack of preparation for jobs in the modern economy. About the U.S., it said: "Tuition fees have spiked up so much that by the time you finish any sort of degree, you will be in more debt than you can handle and with no certainty that you will get a job."

[In depth: Crash vourse - Information decurity at universities]

It didn't take a hack to put that on the table in this country, however -- high tuition and the lack of jobs for college graduates have been among the major topics of debate in the current presidential race.

What the hack did accomplish, said one security expert, was expose how vulnerable university systems are, since it was done with an SQL injection -- one of the most common forms of attack.

Titus told Computerworld that the data appeared to have been collected from small department servers and was not sensitive. But he said it illustrated how poorly many universities protect data.

"Every department is its own fiefdom," he said. "Academic freedom means these entities make their own rules," even around information security. The result is sensitive data is often stored on numerous insecure departmental servers.

Ondrej Krehel, CISO at IDentity Theft 911, said it goes beyond that. "University networks are harder to secure, since access needs to be provided to the public, students, professors and various internal departments," he said. "Often, we find these universities running from the same infrastructure, where the weakest chain is compromised, and that leads to the access of other network segments."

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