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Student hackers: we didn't defeat campus debit card system

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Two student hackers yesterday settled a lawsuit filed against them by campus debit card firm Blackboard with an admission that they never built a device to defeat the system.

Georgia tech student Billy Hoffman (AKA Acidus) and University of Alabama student Virgil Griffith (Virgil) were to present a paper on security flaws involving Blackboard's popular university ID card system at the Interz0ne.com conference last April. Blackboard Inc. got wind of the talk on the supposed shortcomings of its Blackboard Transaction System and filed suit against the pair.

At first the case looked like a big company using lawyers to gag security researchers but subsequent reports on the case reveal something more complex was going on. For instance, the Washington Post reports that in March Hoffman attended a trade show for campus card users as a paid consultant for Blackboard competitor NuVision Networks.

The Blackboard Transaction System is used by many US universities; it enables institutions to manage student accounts, lets students spend their money on the Web or on campus using their student ID card. The system can be Web-enabled or integrated with campus equipment such as cash registers and vending machines.

Hoffman's Web site (www.yak.net/acidus), according to Blackboard's lawyers, detailed plans to "release code to make a computer emulate any Blackboard reader, as well as the hardware designs ... to make a drop in replacement for any Blackboard reader" during the cancelled talk.

But Hoffman and Griffith did not actually make a device that could manipulate the Blackboard system for illicit gain, at least according a settlement the pair made with Blackboard Inc. this week.

AP reports that the settlement requires the students to "apologize to Blackboard and its clients, promise that they never built a transaction processing system and serve 40 hours community service". In return Blackboard Inc. has agreed to call off its lawyers.

"They actually didn't do a lot of the things they were claiming to do," Blackboard spokesman Michael Stanton told AP. "They knew full well the claims they were making were silly. They're obviously bright young guys, but a little misguided in where they were focusing their attention."

Blackboard said the settlement shows its systems are secure but the whole case is better understood as a successful attempt to protect the firm's reputation against the possibly exaggerated claims of a pair of student hacker/crackers. ®

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