Perhaps stealing personal information from major universities is not the best way to start a serious dialogue on the problems of higher education. But the hacker group TeamGhostShell's recent dump of records hacked from 100 major universities throughout the world clearly got their attention -- and the security community's.
Analysts are still sorting through the extent of the hacks of Harvard, Cambridge, Johns Hopkins, Princeton, Tokyo University, Cornell, University of Michigan, University of Rome, Stanford University and New York University, which the group has called Project WestWind.
While the group's leader, "DeadMellox" claims to have posted more than 120,000 records, Aaron Titus, chief privacy officer for Identity Finder told ZDNet. "Identity Finder could only confirm around 40,000 accounts exposed." That, he said is still a large number, "and it is possible that the hackers had access to far more."
But DeadMellox took pains to assert that the group, which operates under the Anonymous umbrella, could have done much more damage. "We tried to keep the leaked information to a minimum, so just around 120.000+ accounts and records are here, leaving in their servers hundreds of thousands more," the message said. "When we got there, we found out that a lot of them have malware injected. No surprise there since some have credit card information stored."
The group's general complaints about education focused on teaching regulations, politics, tuition fees and a lack of preparation for jobs in the modern economy. About the U.S., it said: "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 and with no certainty that you will get a job."
It didn't take a hack to put that on the table in this country, however -- high tuition and the lack of jobs for college graduates have been among the major topics of debate in the current presidential race.
What the hack did accomplish, said one security expert, was expose how vulnerable university systems are, since it was done with an SQL injection -- one of the most common forms of attack.
Titus told Computerworld that the data appeared to have been collected from small department servers and was not sensitive. But he said it illustrated how poorly many universities protect data.
"Every department is its own fiefdom," he said. "Academic freedom means these entities make their own rules," even around information security. The result is sensitive data is often stored on numerous insecure departmental servers.
Ondrej Krehel, CISO at IDentity Theft 911, said it goes beyond that. "University networks are harder to secure, since access needs to be provided to the public, students, professors and various internal departments," he said. "Often, we find these universities running from the same infrastructure, where the weakest chain is compromised, and that leads to the access of other network segments."
Kevin McAleavey, cofounder and chief architect of the KNOS project and a malware expert, said, "Universities are notoriously underfunded for security and depend largely on students to maintain their systems. It takes years and experience to protect databases, so they are reaping what they're paying for with such easy attacks."
Krehel said some universities have almost invited attacks. "In the past, some universities, including Ivy League schools in the U.S., left their data exposed to engines such as Google, which led to a data breach," he said. "Attackers can often find treasures just by knowing what to ask Google, and gain understanding on how to attack particular university system by doing a simple search. Versions of CRM systems, operating platforms, last shutdown and upgrade, web server's secrets and databases behind can all be revealed online."
McAleavey added that it doesn't take much skill today to launch the kind of SQL injection that yielded the results. "All they have to do with tools like this is just point, click and wait for the screen to fill," he said.
The other possible revelation from Project WestWind is that it shows a somewhat less malignant side of TeamGhostShell. Hackmageddon noted in May that DeadMellox had hacked the European Forex Traders on May 6 and dumped 1,500 accounts. The attack was to, "payback the police, the informants, the snitches, the politicians, the stupid and the corrupt."
Two days later, DeadMellox and "@EchelOn," both of TeamGhostShell said they had hacked the online education website of China's Hangzhou Dianzi University, and dumped more than 150,000 accounts including staff and student account information and the mobile phone numbers of 234 IT staffers. "Estimated cost of the breach is around $29 million," the message said.
Indeed, a post on FreakOutNation by "Anomaly" in June said an earlier project of TeamGhostShell, labeled #ProjectDragonFly was focused almost entirely on the Chinese government, its institutions, corporations and companies.
It quoted DeadMellox saying, "I'm declaring war on China's cyberspace." This was, in part, according to DeadMellox, "due to unfortunate events and a wanted poster in four continents on my head, [so] I decided to sail over to south-eastern Asia for a while."
TeamGhostShell also claimed responsibility for the Hellfire leak, launched in August, in which a million user accounts were stolen from roughly 100 website owned by government agencies, banks and consulting firms, including the CIA and Wall Street.
But that softer, serious-dialogue side is apparently only temporary. The group said on Twitter that it plans to "head back East" for the next project.