Hackers hijack information from Pitt, Penn servers

Debra Erdley
| Thursday, Oct. 4, 2012, 7:14 p.m.

University of Pittsburgh officials on Thursday said the school was among more than 50 research universities around the world whose information files were posted online by an anonymous group of hackers calling themselves Team GhostShell.

The group dubbed its data release — posted online at Pastebin.com — Project Westwind. Team GhostShell, which infiltrated university servers at Harvard, Johns Hopkins, Duke, Penn, Cambridge and the University of Tokyo among others, said it wanted to draw attention to shortcomings in higher education around the world. No vital information was compromised, analysts said.

“We wanted to bring to your attention different examples from Europe, how the laws change so often that even the teachers have a hard time adjusting to them ... to the U.S., where tuition fees have spiked up so much that by the time you finish any sort of degree, you will be in more debt than you can handle,” the hackers wrote.

Aaron Titus, chief privacy officer for IndentiFinder, a New York data-loss prevention company, analyzed the data drop. He said it contained information such as dates of birth, marital status and citizenship, but not Social Security or credit card numbers.

“None of the (universities') core systems were hacked. They were all obscure tertiary systems some professor had set up under low security and forgot about,” Titus said.

Titus said the time stamps suggested the hackers spent several months scanning and downloading information.

Team GhostShell said many of the university servers already were infiltrated with malware — software used to disrupt services or gather information — by the time it breached them.

Penn spokesman Stephen MacCarthy said the Philadelphia school notified students and faculty of the breach on Wednesday. Information disclosed in the breach at Penn included names, email addresses, phone numbers and student ID numbers.

“Fortunately, no sensitive information that could result in identity theft, such as Social Security numbers, PennKey Password, bank account numbers or credit card numbers are contained in the database that was compromised,” MacCarthy said.

Daniel Mosse, chairman of the computer science department at Pitt, said the sites compromised at Pitt were not from his department, nor were they part of the university's web infrastructure. He described the servers that were breached as research experimental servers containing old code.

“No sensitive or confidential data (were) exposed. All information there and exposed was for testing purposes or available on the Internet,” he said.

Pitt spokesman John Fedele echoed Mosse's assessment of the breach.

“Work is under way to move these sites to the university's enterprise infrastructure, and we expect that to happen in the very near future,” Fedele said in an email.

In April, a video posted on YouTube said the group Anonymous infiltrated Pitt servers and threatened to post confidential information on the Internet unless Chancellor Mark Nordenberg apologized for his handling of a series of bomb threats.

Pitt officials at the time said their servers had not been hacked. Two months later, FBI agents arrested an Ohio man in connection with the hoax.

Debra Erdley is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7996 or derdley@tribweb.com.

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