When a faculty member at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, logged in to the university's grade book last fall, she realized something was wrong: The grades in the online system didn't match her paper records. She was alert enough to see this was no mere glitch.
In March, after months of investigation, police charged two students with hacking the system to inflate grades. Police maintain that Beckley Parker, 21, of Weston, Conn., had changed his own grades for 17 classes since the spring of 2011, and also changed grades for 50 other students, according to the Dayton Daily News. David Callahan, 22, of Cambridge, Mass., reportedly changed his own grade once and two other students' grades. Although the facts are subject to interpretation, it seems the two were either trying to help fraternity brothers or other friends at the same time they were improving their own grades, or they may have been trying to cover their tracks by changing more than one grade in each case.
All it took for them to make the changes was an inexpensive keylogger device, inserted between the keyboard and the computer it was attached to, which allowed them to record the actions of teachers entering their passwords for the grading system. They were then able to access the system at will.
After cooperating with investigators, the students avoided being charged with a felony, instead accepting dismissal from the university and pleading guilty to multiple counts of "attempted unauthorized use of property," a misdemeanor.
Miami University's information security officer, Joe Bazeley, says an attack on the university's learning and grading systems is actually worse than the sort of attacks, namely information theft and exposure, that used to keep him up at night before the keylogger incident. "We produce knowledge and identify that via grades and a diploma," Bazeley says. The grade book hack "challenges the integrity of those grades and diplomas," he says.
Learn From The Hacks
Unfortunately, examples abound in higher education of the other kind of security breach.
An undergraduate at the University of Nebraska last year was able to break into a database associated with the university's PeopleSoft system, exposing Social Security numbers and other sensitive information on about 654,000 students, alumni and employees. According to our sister website Dark Reading, the university was lucky enough to detect the breach and shut it down quickly. An IT staffer picked up on an error message that seemed like evidence of something amiss, and a recently installed security information and event management system helped network managers sort through system logs and collect enough evidence to allow police to get a warrant to confiscate the computer of the student believed to have been behind the attack.
In March, Salem State University in Massachusetts alerted 25,000 current and former students and staff that their Social Security numbers may have been compromised in a database breach. If the pattern of the last few years repeats itself, expect higher education institutions to experience another half dozen major security breaches by the end of 2013.
download the May 2013 issue of InformationWeek Education.