Anonymous Group Hackers Claim Top Universities are Easy Targets

Hackers allied with the Anonymous movement say they stole files from more than 100,000 accounts stored in poorly secured databases at high profile international universities. But security experts report the claims are exaggerated and the data losses limited.

Universities and colleges are not known for their discipline in locking down computer systems. Good schools want debate to thrive and research to be unfettered. That means academic departments frequently skirt the rules around information security.

No wonder, then, that a group of hackers aligning themselves with the Anonymous movement had little trouble in compromising dozens of databases spread across more than 50 universities worldwide. On Oct. 1, the group, calling themselves Team GhostShell, published a list on PasteBin of archives of data allegedly stolen from major universities, such as Stanford University, Cambridge University, the University of Michigan, Tokyo University and the University of Zurich.

The hackers claimed that they breached the servers to protest against the rising costs and declining standards of higher education.

"We have set out to raise awareness towards the changes made in today's education, how new laws imposed by politicians affect us, our economy and overall, our way of life," the group stated in a post to Pastebin. "How far we have ventured from learning valuable skills that would normally help us be prepared in life, to just, simply memorizing large chunks of text in exchange for good grades."

Yet, for the most part, news of the breach was overblown, experts said. The hacking group claimed that the files included about 120,000 accounts, but in reality only a little more than 13,000 credentials—defined as a username with an associated password—were in the files, according to breach-monitoring service PwnedList, which scanned all the files as part of its service.

"Some of them had credit card numbers and that is always a scary sight, but the overall number of credentials was fairly small," said Steve Thomas, co-founder of PwnedList. "They claimed the leak had 120,000 accounts, but our research shows nothing close to that."

Others agreed that much of the data had little value and was not sensitive. Stanford University, for example, called the data breach "minor" and breach-response firm IdentityFinder found the data consisted of mainly names and email addresses, some from breaches four months old, according to an article in The New York Times' Bits blog.

Despite the relative low level of threat posed by the attacks, colleges and universities should take the breaches as a sign that they need to beef up their security, said Timothy Ryan, managing director of the cyber investigations practice at risk-management and security firm Kroll Worldwide. Many schools do not know how many database servers are running within their network, never mind whether those servers are secure, he said.

Information security teams, for example, need to have the same abilities to investigate on campus as public safety officers, said Ryan, a former FBI cyber investigator.

"I think that this should raise the profile of cyber-security on campus," he said. "To say that IT responders need to call 20 different people to get access to an office to image a computer that has been used in an attack is ludicrous."

As far as the details of the attacks are concerned, Team GhostShell's statement is not the first time that Anonymous has misled the public in statements on its antics. In September, a hacking group claiming an affiliation with the movement, claimed it had stolen 12 million Apple device IDs from an FBI computer, proof that the agency was spying on Americans. In reality, the 1 million leaked IDs—a lower but still significant number—came from an iOS developer.

"We have seen events like this before, especially where some of these hacktivists or hacking groups, they will accumulate a whole lot of hacks or even republish some of the hacks that they had harvested before and release them all at once to get the attention," said PwnedList's Thomas. "They do it primarily to get additional attention."

Robert Lemos

Robert Lemos

Robert Lemos is an award-winning freelance journalist who has covered information security, cybercrime and technology's impact on society for almost two decades. A former research engineer, he's...