Wednesday, July 13, 2016

From the Archives: Chinese hackers attack University of Virginia email, cause IT shutdown

Publisher's note: This article was originally published on on August 14, 2015. The publishing platform was discontinued July 1, 2016, and its web site is scheduled to go dark on or about July 10, 2016.  I am republishing this piece in an effort to preserve it and all my other contributions to since April 6, 2010. It is reposted here without most of the internal links that were in the original.

Chinese hackers attack University of Virginia email, cause IT shutdown

Late breaking news from the University of Virginia arrived just as the Charlottesville Libertarian Examiner joined radio host Coy Barefoot on WCHV-FM to discuss current affairs on Friday afternoon, August 14.

A message to the University community from executive vice president and chief operating officer Patrick D. Hogan said: "The University of Virginia has confirmed that sophisticated attackers originating from China illegally accessed portions of the University's information technology systems. Federal authorities had alerted the University of a possible cyber attack, and this was confirmed by the University on June 11. Upon becoming aware of the attack, the University engaged Mandiant, an internationally recognized cybersecurity firm, to immediately help the University identify the nature of the attack and take corrective action. This action included enhanced security measures to further fortify University data and systems."

Two targets
While no personal data like Social Security numbers or credit card accounts was accessed by the hackers, it appears the breach was intended to find emails from specific individuals within the University whose work focuses on China.

According to a report by Daily Progress correspondent Dean Seal, published nearly simultaneously with Hogan's University-wide announcement, "The attack specifically targeted the email accounts of two employees whose work is connected with China, university officials told The Daily Progress. However, the identities and departments of those employees have not been released. They remain employed at the university, officials said Friday."

Who did it?
Although it was not clear that the cyberattack had originated from the Chinese government, speculation aired on Coy Barefoot's "Inside Charlottesville" radio program suggested that the employees may be faculty members or researchers who work on democracy issues or human rights in China, or perhaps are involved in some business activities.

Chinese hackers have previously invaded U.S. businesses' computer systems in order to uncover trade secrets. They also recently harvested information from a decades-old database of U.S. government employees maintained by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM).

The cyberattack did not target the UVA hospital or health system. Those divisions' email, web sites, and databases remain operational.

University officials estimate that it will take approximately 48 hours to install the security fixes needed to protect the emails of faculty, staff, and students. They recommend that, once the system is running again, individuals should change their email and other passwords for additional protection.


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