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Server hack at Georgetown Univ. probed

Data on as many as 41,000 people may have been compromised

March 6, 2006 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Georgetown University in Washington has called in the U.S. Secret Service to investigate a server breach that may have exposed confidential information including the names, dates of birth and Social Security numbers belonging to more than 41,000 people.

The breach appears to have been caused by an external hacker and involved a server that was being managed by a Georgetown University researcher as part of a grant to manage information on the various services provided through the District of Columbia’s Office of Aging, according to a university statement released Friday.

The breach was first discovered during routine internal monitoring of university networks by Georgetown’s information security office on Feb. 12, according to Erik Smulson, a university spokesman. The server that was compromised was immediately disconnected from the network.

But because “it took some time to recognize the scope and nature of the exposure, the computer intrusion was not disclosed to the Office on Aging until Feb. 24, he said. Law enforcement officials were notified on Feb. 27, and the Secret Service took custody of the compromised server for forensic testing the next day.

Only data that was on the Office of Aging server was compromised, Smulson said. He added that the breach did not affect any of the university’s core computer systems containing financial and admission records. There is no evidence that the compromised information has been misused so far, he said.

Georgetown University is now notifying the people whose information may have been exposed in the incident, Smulson said. But that task is complicated by the fact that the breached server contained records dating to 1983 on people who may be now deceased, he said.

“We are making every reasonable effort to notify affected individuals,” he said. Georgetown has established a toll-free phone number, 1-866-740-2458, and a Web site where people can get more information.

According to a university source close to the incident who requested anonymity, the server in question was under the control of an individual who was not technically qualified to be a systems administrator.

“Because we’re a university and fairly open, there are many computing fiefdoms all over the place,” often run by individuals with grant money, the source said in an e-mail. Because the university information system office has not figured out a way to manage these independently run computing environments, there can be gaps in security, he said.

In an e-mail informing the university community about the incident, Georgetown’s CIO, David Lambert, said the broad base of research and service programs conducted across campus “creates an additional responsibility for every research principal investigator, department chair and program director in the university to focus attention on information security.

“As part of our increased focus on the security of all systems in the Georgetown network, the security office will launch a program throughout the spring and summer focused on enhancing the security of confidential information contained on campus and departmental servers,” Lambert said without elaborating.

Read more about Cybercrime and Hacking in Computerworld's Cybercrime and Hacking Topic Center.

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