Wednesday, December 13, 2006

UCLA: 800,000 records hacked

Ah, college. A time to learn, make friends, and discover your identity. Or if you go to UCLA, a time to have your identity stolen. Up until late last month, University of California at Los Angeles administrators have now confessed, a hacker has been accessing records of as many as 800,000 current, former, and prospective students; faculty members; and staff.

This is a big deal, because unlike past incidents where records containing sensitive data were merely lost or misplaced, UCLA network administrators found evidence that the hacker was actively accessing records. If you've had any affiliation with UCLA - even by applying to the school, check out the FTC's guidelines for dealing with identity theft.

Here's why this happened - and why it won't be the last identity-theft incident to come around. Also, I'm posting a copy of UCLA's notice to those affected.

  1. Universities have notoriously bad computer security. Why? To preserve academic freedom, network administrators put minimal restrictions on network activity. And that's a good thing - Google (GOOG) started out as a Stanford University research project, and had Stanford's sysadmins been stricter, Google might never have gotten off the ground. But IT personnel need to separate loose, free-flowing academic networks from the record-keeping systems used to administer the campus, and put those official systems behind tight firewalls.
  2. Tight state-government budgets and bureaucratic purchasing procedures pretty much guarantee that public institutions are always going to be behind the times in the latest security software and hardware - and it only takes one unpatched bug to create a hole a hacker can exploit.
  3. Colleges need to have sensitive information like social-security numbers to process loan applications and pay student workers. But that SSN ends up being used as an identifier for other purposes, merely out of convenience. University systems like Kansas State only recently instituted a policy calling for the discontinuation of use of the SSN as a student identifier. But until more schools create, and more importantly, implement, such policies, social-security numbers are going to be scattered across all kinds of college IT systems, creating tempting targets.

This is going to get expensive for UCLA. Ohio University spent $77,000 dealing with a data breach a quarter the size of UCLA's. That doesn't even count the cost of lost donations from outraged alumni, of course.

Here's the letter from UCLA acting chancellor Norman Abrams:

----- Forwarded Message ----
From: "Norman Abrams, Acting Chancellor, UCLA"
Sent: Tuesday, December 12, 2006 8:22:28 AM
Subject: UCLA Warns of Unauthorized Access to Restricted Database

December 12, 2006

Dear Friend,

UCLA computer administrators have discovered that a restricted campus database containing certain personal information has been illegally accessed by a sophisticated computer hacker. This database contains certain personal information about UCLA’s current and some former students, faculty and staff, some student applicants and some parents of students or applicants who applied for financial aid. The database also includes current and some former faculty and staff at the University of California, Merced, and current and some former employees of the University of California Office of the President, for which UCLA does administrative processing.

I regret having to inform you that your name is in the database. While we are uncertain whether your personal information was actually obtained, we know that the hacker sought and retrieved some Social Security numbers. Therefore, I want to bring this situation to your attention and urge you to take actions to minimize your potential risk of identity theft. I emphasize that we have no evidence that personal information has been misused.

The information stored on the affected database includes names and Social Security numbers, dates of birth, home addresses and contact information. It does not include driver’s license numbers or credit card or banking information.

Only designated users whose jobs require working with the restricted data are given passwords to access this database. However, an unauthorized person exploited a previously undetected software flaw and fraudulently accessed the database between October 2005 and November 2006. When UCLA discovered this activity on Nov. 21, 2006, computer security staff immediately blocked all access to Social Security numbers and began an emergency investigation. While UCLA currently utilizes sophisticated information security measures to protect this database, several measures that were already under way have been accelerated.

In addition, UCLA has notified the FBI, which is conducting its own investigation. We began notifying those individuals in the affected database as soon as possible after determining that personal data was accessed and after we retrieved individual contact information.

As a precaution, I recommend that you place a fraud alert on your consumer credit file. By doing so, you let creditors know to watch for unusual or suspicious activity, such as someone attempting to open a new credit card account in your name. You may also wish to consider placing a security freeze on your accounts by writing to the credit bureaus. A security freeze means that your credit history cannot be seen by potential creditors, insurance companies or employers doing background checks unless you give consent. For details on how to take these steps, please visit

Extensive information on steps to protect against personal identity theft and fraud are on the Web site of the California Office of Privacy Protection, a division of the state Department of Consumer Affairs, .

Information also is available on a Web site we have established, . The site includes additional information on this situation, further suggestions for monitoring your credit and links to state and federal resources. If you have questions about this incident and its implications, you may call our toll-free number, (877) 533-8082.

Please be aware that dishonest people falsely identifying themselves as UCLA representatives might contact you and offer assistance. I want to assure you that UCLA will not contact you by phone, e-mail or any other method to ask you for personal information. I strongly urge you not to release any personal information in response to inquiries of this nature.

We have a responsibility to safeguard personal information, an obligation that we take very seriously.

I deeply regret any concern or inconvenience this incident may cause you.


Norman Abrams, Acting Chancellor

This is an automated message regarding the recent identity alert at UCLA. We're sorry, but we are unable to respond to emails. Please do not reply to this email. If you have questions or concerns and would like to speak with someone, please call (877) 533-8082. For additional information and steps to take, please go to the dedicated website at

Source - Business 2.0

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