Archive for Monday, July 28, 2003

Hacker attack probe continues

Theft of information from foreign students takes toll at KU

July 28, 2003


Six months ago, a hacker sneaked into Kansas University's computer system, downloaded vital information on about 1,450 foreign students and vanished into cyberspace.

KU officials were both mortified and apologetic, encouraging the students to warn their credit card companies.

The FBI called the incident the most serious and potentially dangerous hacking crime in the Midwest. The agency's office in Kansas City, Mo., promised a thorough investigation.

So what happened?

The FBI isn't saying.

"That investigation is still ongoing, so we'll not have anything to say about it," said FBI spokeswoman Bridget Patton.

KU doesn't know much, either.

"We pretty much turned the investigation part of things over to the FBI," said Allison Rose Lopez, external relations coordinator for KU's Office of Information Services.

Lopez said the hole that gave the hacker access to the foreign students' information was quickly patched.

"Other proactive measures have been taken," she said, "but it's best to keep that kind of information secure."

This fall, the Office of Information Services will launch a universitywide campaign aimed at encouraging students, faculty and staff to protect themselves against data thieves by turning off their computers -- their e-mail and file-sharing software, at least -- when they're not in use.


The FBI's investigation took a toll on the university's Office of International Student and Scholar Services.

"Basically, they (FBI) needed access to all our hardware for a while, so we ended up having to install a new system, reinstalling the software and then re-coding and re-entering all the data," said office director Joe Potts. "It probably set us back about two months."

Fears that the stolen information -- Social Security numbers, especially -- were being used to gain access to foreign students' credit card information did not pan out, Potts said.

"To our knowledge there haven't been any cases of fraud -- not that we've been notified about," Potts said.

Because of the increased potential for identity theft and heightened terrorism concerns, Potts said KU's foreign students were warned to expect closer scrutiny when they leave and re-enter the United States. The warning has since been expanded to include all foreign students.

"What we're being told now is all international students -- not just ours -- are going to be checked more carefully than in the past," Potts said. "It's part of the federal homeland security measures."

Cindy Yeo, a senior from Singapore, said she has left the country twice since the hacking incident and both times had trouble returning to the United States.

"It's been a lot harder to get back in the country now," she said. "Every time I've come back I've been held for two hours at a time and interrogated."

Yeo traveled to Singapore just as the war against Iraq started, and to Amsterdam a few months ago.

Enrollment steady

Potts said he expected KU's foreign-student fall semester enrollment to remain even with last year's.

"We don't have the final numbers yet," he said. "But they should be relatively stable."

Potts said he had noticed three trends affecting international student enrollment:

l The number of undergraduate students applying for admission is down because costs tied to the application process have increased.

"We're getting fewer frivolous applications," Potts said. "It appears that fewer students are applying to multiple schools."

l The number of students being accepted is up slightly because "the quality of the applicant has increased."

l Middle Eastern families are increasingly steering their college-bound students toward English-speaking universities in England, Australia and New Zealand.

"The (Middle Eastern) students here now are very comfortable here," Potts said. "But their families back home are generally nervous and worried about their being here because of the way the United States is portrayed in their media. They think students are being mistreated, and that it makes sense to go somewhere else."

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