UC Berkeley computers hacked, 160,000 at risk

Attackers access public health center Web site, then break into secured databases on the same server, stealing some 97,000 Social Security numbers.

This post was updated at 2:16 p.m. PDT with comment from an outside database security software vendor.

Hackers broke into the University of California at Berkeley's health services center computer and potentially stole the personal information of more than 160,000 students, alumni, and others, the university announced Friday.

At particular risk of identity theft are some 97,000 individuals whose Social Security numbers were accessed in the breach, but it's still unclear whether hackers were able to match up those SSNs with individual names, Shelton Waggener, UCB's chief technology officer, said in a press conference Friday afternoon.

UCB data theft info
University of California at Berkeley

The attackers accessed a public Web site and then bypassed additional secured databases stored on the same server. In addition to SSNs, the databases contained health insurance information and non-treatment medical information, such as immunization records and names of doctors patients had seen. No medical records (i.e. patient diagnoses, treatments, and therapies) were taken, as they are stored in a separate system, emphasized Steve Lustig, associate vice chancellor for health and human services.

"Their ID has not been stolen," he added. "Some data has been stolen."

The server breach began on October 9, 2008, and continued through April 9, when a campus computer administrator doing routine maintenance discovered messages left by the attackers. Logs indicate that the hacks originated from overseas, "primarily in the Asian theater," Waggener said, later specifying traces to China.

While campus police and the FBI were immediately notified of the breach, it wasn't until April 21, Waggener said, that officials learned data had been stolen. Since then, the focus of the investigation has been figuring out what was taken and who is at risk. The hackers' specific techniques are still being determined as part of the ongoing criminal investigation, he said.

From the looks of it, however, one outside database security software vendor, Sentrigo CTO Slavik Markovich, suspects an SQL injection, in which a small malicious script is inserted into a database that feeds information to the Web site. Markovich also questions whether the university has appropriate monitoring tools in place to have not noticed the hack for six months, and why it hosted data with different levels of sensitivity on the same server.

The university started notifying the 160,000 people at risk via e-mail and snail mail on Friday. Victims include an assortment of current and former Berkeley students--as well as their parents or spouses, if linked to insurance coverage--who had University Health Services health care coverage or received services. Also included are 3,400 students of Mills College in Oakland, Calif., which contracts with the university for health services.

The university has warned those affected to put a fraud alert on their credit reporting accounts. It has also set up a Web site and hotline to help the victims.

In 2005, a PC was stolen from a Berkeley graduate admission office that held sensitive data on some 98,000 people, stretching back three decades. And the university has dealt with security viruses and the like, Waggener said. But this was the first such server breach.

With this, Waggener said, Berkeley joins a long list of prestigious institutions suffering from such increasingly sophisticated and malicious attacks. "We're defending against attacks from around the world," he said.

Tags:
Security
About the author

Michelle Meyers, associate editor, has been writing and editing CNET News stories since 2005. But she's still working to shed some of her old newspaper ways, first honed when copy was actually cut and pasted. When she's not fixing typos and tightening sentences, she's working with reporters on story ideas, tracking media happenings, or freshening up CNET News' home page.

 

Join the discussion

Conversation powered by Livefyre

Show Comments Hide Comments
Latest Galleries from CNET
Nissan gives new Murano bold style (pictures)
Top great space moments in 2014 (pictures)
This is it: The Audiophiliac's top in-ear headphones of 2014 (pictures)
ZTE's wallet-friendly Grand X (pictures)
Lenovo reprises clever design for the Yoga Tablet 2 (Pictures)
Top-rated reviews of the week (pictures)