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Attackers Break Into UVA Database

Personal data on nearly 6,000 former and current faculty members at the University of Virginia was compromised

Hackers exploited a vulnerability in a University of Virginia Web application and gained access to personal data on nearly 6,000 former and existing faculty members there.

A Web design error apparently left a private database on "background pages" on the university's Website. Investigators believe the attackers got the information from a special-purpose Web application, in which the faculty information was mistakenly included in its database. The database contained names, Social Security numbers, and birth dates, and in the case of some faculty members, their race, marital status, tenure information, employment history, and other private information.

UVA's IT group first discovered the database on April 20, and removed it. It wasn't until a month later that they discovered the actual security breach after an unrelated Website defacement incident. During the period of May 20, 2005, and April 19, 2007, attackers gained access to personal records of nearly 6,000 faculty members who had worked at UVA from around 1990 to August 2003, as well as current faculty. Of the 6,000, 2,100 are now employed at the university.

IT officials at the university since have secured the application and removed the data that was breached. Like many other organizations in a long line of recent security breaches, UVA is offering free credit monitoring to the victims, as well as identity theft insurance.

James Hilton, UVA's vice president and CIO, said in a prepared statement that the attack was a sophisticated one. "The information could not be accessed through everyday Web browsing," he said. "To find it required a relatively sophisticated and intentional attack on the database."

The incident has prompted UVA to ramp up efforts it already had begun to remove Social Security numbers and other personal data from databases that can be reached via the Internet, according to Hilton. "The University is continually modifying its systems and practices to enhance the security of sensitive information and training its employees in data protection," he said in the statement.

— Kelly Jackson Higgins, Senior Editor, Dark Reading

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