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Attacks/Breaches

8/11/2010
01:58 PM
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Six Florida Colleges Victims Of Widespread Data Breach

SSNs, other personal data of 126,000 students, employees were inadvertently exposed -- and ultimately accessed -- online

Another day, another university data breach: Six colleges in Florida had their students' and employees' personal data exposed and, in some cases, accessed and posted online by outsiders when a library services firm serving the colleges inadvertently left the information in its database exposed for five days.

Students, faculty, and employees at Broward College, Florida State College at Jacksonville, Northwest Florida State College, Pensacola State College, South Florida Community College, and Tallahassee Community College all are at risk of exposed personal data, according to The College Center for Library Automation (CCLA), which provides automated library services and electronic resources to Florida public colleges. As many as 126,000 individuals' Social Security numbers and other personal information were accessed online by unauthorized people (PDF) after a software upgrade at the organization resulted in the database being left exposed.

The breach reportedly was discovered after a student found his own SSN via a Google search in late June. Although the CCLA did not specify how the data was there, it appears that whoever accessed it was likely posting it in an effort to sell or abuse it, security experts say.

The personal information in CCLA's database did not include financial data or library usage records, and it was exposed between May 29 and June 2.

"The personal information contained in the temporarily exposed records was incorporated into a longer string of alphanumeric information and was not specifically identified by type of information in any way," according to the CCLA.

The Florida colleges breach is just the latest in a string of university hacks. In the past two years, more than 160 higher-education breaches have been reported, exposing some 2.3 million records, according to data from Privacy Rights.org. Just last month, the University of Hawaii Manoa reported a breach that affected 53,000 students, faculty, and other customers of its parking facilities after an attacker got into the database. Before that, the University of Maine, Florida International University, and Penn State University all reported big breaches this year.

But the CCLA database hack was a fairly large one, industry experts say. "That it was a direct attack on the database was interesting," says Thom VanHorn, vice president of marketing for AppSec. "Some of these breaches [at universities] in the past have been from stolen laptops or backup drives with information on it -- those were bad luck. This one is more scary because the information [stolen] was harvested from the database. Clearly, there was intent to get the information.

"When a laptop is stolen, 99 percent of the time the [perpetrator] doesn't know he's got SSNs on it," he says.

The CCLA did not provide details about what the software upgrade entailed or why the upgrade left the database exposed, except that the compromised records had been stored in temporary work files that were being processed when the breach occurred. The organization says it plans to beef up security. "As evidenced by our quick response to this incident, CCLA takes the security of personal data very seriously. We will continue to enhance our technology to safeguard all of the information entrusted to us," said Richard Madaus, CEO of CCLA, in a statement.

Universities are a big target because they house so much valuable personal information on students and alumni, including Social Security numbers, financial information, and healthcare records, VanHorn says. "They are an attractive target," he says.

And until recently, some colleges and universities were still using SSNs for identification purposes, he says. "We've had some new grad hires who said when they took tests in college, they had to write their SSN on top of the test" to identify themselves, he says. "I think that's changing, but there still are some old systems out there that need to be updated."

Meanwhile, the CCLA has set up a Web page about the breach and recommends people affected by the breach place free fraud alerts on their credit files and check their credit reports for suspicious activity.

Have a comment on this story? Please click "Discuss" below. If you'd like to contact Dark Reading's editors directly, send us a message.

Kelly Jackson Higgins is the Executive Editor of Dark Reading. She is an award-winning veteran technology and business journalist with more than two decades of experience in reporting and editing for various publications, including Network Computing, Secure Enterprise ... View Full Bio

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