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Penn State Cyber Attacks Involved No Students, Faculty

by on May 16, 2015 5:30 AM

Penn State has released some new details about the two large-scale cyber attacks the university announced on Friday.

There are plenty of details university officials don't know about the hacks into the college of engineering's servers: who was behind the attacks? Why did they launch their cyber assault? What were they looking for?

But despite this uncertainty, university officials have ruled out a number of possibilities.

University leaders say they don't think anyone on the ground at Penn State helped with the attacks; no international faculty, staff or students are believed to have been involved in any way; and the attacks don't seem to be directly linked to any other hacks at other universities. 

Penn State Vice Provost of Information Technology Kevin Morooney says the next step in the university's recovery is already well underway. University staffers are currently overhauling the university's cyber security systems and implementing more aggressive security monitoring technologies.

Although an investigation into the computer break-ins traced one back to China, Penn State Provost Nick Jones is quick to stress that no Chinese members of the Penn State community are under suspicion. 

"Attribution for attacks like this can be very difficult from the victim's perspective," says Nick Bennet, senior manager of the Mandiant cyber security firm that's working with Penn State. "An attacker can hide hide where they're coming from."

So even though university leaders and Mandiant staff know one attack originated in China, that's about all they can say for sure. They don't know if it was a single person, a group of people, a governmental organization or a private company. And when it comes to the second attack, they haven't even pinned down a location.

Penn State first learned about the attacks last November, after the FBI notified the university of the security breaches. University provost Nick Jones says the FBI did not disclose how it discovered the hacks, and Bennett adds that it's very common for agencies like the FBI to notice cyber attacks before the victims themselves.

Bennett says Penn State engineering was subject to two distinct attacks from two separate sources. One of the two attacks had gained access to the engineering network as early as September 2012, and the other gained access July 2014.

Although Bennett says there is no "direct evidence" that hackers stole anything other than user names and passwords, he was unable to speculate about what kinds of data they may have accessed. Some of the computers the hackers had access to contained research data and social security numbers. Anyone who may have had their information compromised has been notified.

"In other investigations we've done, we've seen attackers focus on things like engineering and aerospace technology in order to steal intellectual property," Bennett said, attempting to explain why only the college of engineering appears to have been affected.

Currently, the college of engineering network is completely offline. Faculty and researchers will be able to continue their work once the network goes live again in a few days. In the meantime, everyone with a connection to the college will have to change their password.

To learn more about the attacks or what you need to do if you're affiliated with the college of engineering, visit security.psu.edu.

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Michael Martin Garrett is a reporter and editor for StateCollege.com who covers local government, the courts, the arts and writes the Keeping the Faith column. He's a Penn State alumnus, a published poet and the bassist in a local indie rock band.
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