Recently it was reported that Chinese hackers are aiming to target around 26 leading research academies to steal research about maritime technology, the majority of which happen to be based in the USA. In the same week, three mainstream private colleges have claimed that their systems were hacked and hackers managed to gain access to sensitive student data and asked for a ransom in exchange for the files.
According to a report published by Inside Higher Ed, applicants at three elite colleges Hamilton (New York), Grinnell (Iowa), and Oberlin (Ohio) were delivered ransom notes and informed by the hackers that they have gained access to their students’ application files. All three colleges used a data system known as Slate to track applicant admissions.
Reportedly, the hacking occurred on Thursday night and hackers breached the applicant information system of the colleges. The affected institutions were emailed by the hackers who offered them the option of buying their admission files for a fee. Thousands of dollars were demanded by the hackers as ransom from students to get back their stolen data. The colleges are now reviewing their systems’ security on the recommendations of officials from Slate.
This morning Grinnell learned from some prospective students that they received an email from an individual claiming to have gained unauthorized access to a database containing personally identifiable information who would sell them access to their full admission file. 1/2
— Grinnell College (@GrinnellCollege) March 7, 2019
It is worth noting that Slate is a popular and commonly used software system and over 900 colleges/universities across the world rely upon it for the management of applicants’ information. According to the chief executive of Technosolutions, Alexander Clark stated that the company doesn’t know about any other colleges that have been targeted by hackers. Technosolutions is the parent company of Slate.
The images of emails received by the applicants have gone viral on Reddit and College Confidential message boards. It can be seen that the admission emails have been sent from official college addresses and recipients are promised to receive access to their admission files if they agree to pay one Bitcoin (approx. $3,800) in ransom. Some students claimed that the ransom price offered to them was $60 in exchange for a limited amount of information.
It isn’t clear whether the sender has access to the admission files but it is apparent that the names and contact information of applicants of the three colleges is accurate and emails are sent from the official college admission email address.
It is also reported that the stolen data includes personal details of applicants and admission officers’ notes along with acceptance decisions and interview reports. Hackers have used a script that’s often used by cybercriminals for accessing exclusive, confidential data. This is achieved by the creation of a phishing email to lure recipients into believing that the email is legit and give their credentials, which are they stolen by the attackers.
According to Fortune, Single-sign-on is a method that allows hackers to steal data using only a password and this is the system that was used by the three colleges. That’s why security researchers always stress upon using 2FA system so that apart from entering the password, the user is required to verify identity by providing the secret code sent to their email IDs and mobile phones.
Grinnell College and Hamilton College stated that there is no indication of personal financial information of students getting exposed to hackers while Oberlin College claimed that none of its applicants or students reported about receiving emails from the hacker.