The fear of another person using their identities for financial gain isn't the most serious concern facing Kansas University foreign students who were victimized by a computer hacker this week.
Being notified that your most personal identifying information has been stolen by a computer hacker is bad enough. However, the idea that the hacking could affect your status as a resident of the United States or even put you in danger of being linked to terrorist activity is far more terrifying.
This is the situation currently facing foreign students at Kansas University where officials discovered this week that a "hole" in the school's computer system allowed a hacker to download personal information on 1,450 international students. The announcement by university officials on Thursday that they were "confident that we have closed the temporary 'hole' in our system" probably is cold comfort to the affected students.
Hacking incidents like this one are the worst nightmare of our computerized age. According to statistics released this week by the Federal Trade Commission, the number of complaints the government has received concerning identity theft doubled from about 86,000 in 2001 to about 162,000 in 2002. The reports were made by people who were the victims of people who used hijacked information to tap into credit card and bank accounts, draining their resources and trashing their credit records.
The threat of identity theft has triggered caution among many Americans who are investing in paper shredders and becoming more conscious of who has access to personal information. The situation now facing the KU students, however, is much worse. Not only do they have to take time from their studies to contact credit card companies and take other steps to protect their assets, they also may come under additional scrutiny by immigration officials who are charged with keeping an eye on national security.
Officials of the Immigration and Naturalization Service said this week that the KU international students may be subject to more scrutiny when they enter or leave the country. There's also concern that information gained in the hacking could be used by other people seeking to illegally enter the United States. The worse case scenario is that some of those people would have terrorism as their objective.
It's hard to exaggerate the seriousness of this computer breach. The potential danger of the KU hacking has put it at the top of the FBI's computer crime investigations. The security of the nation as well as 1,400 individuals' privacy has been put in question.
It appears KU officials are scrambling to try to mitigate the damage of this incident, but it would have been far better to have taken steps to avoid the situation. Protecting computerized information is a huge challenge for every other agency that maintains such files, but breaches like the one experienced this week at KU simply can't be tolerated. The state and KU officials not only must do whatever they can to help the students affected by this incident, they must take whatever steps are available to protect the records of all KU students from future intrusions.