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University admins lend phishers a hand

Hacked cluster serves up addresses

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Lax security at Indiana University appears to have played a key role in highly targeted phishing attack last year that hauled in confidential information on as many as 80 account holders of the school's credit union. The finding, gleaned through public records unearthed by a university student, provides an interesting case study in the resourcefulness phishers bring to their trade.

Among those who received the 2006 email purporting to come from officials with the IU Credit Union was Christopher Soghoian, a graduate student of computer security who wanted to know how his email address was targeted even though it had never been used. University officials rebuffed his attempts to learn more about the attack, so he filed a request under Indiana's public records act.

It turns out the perpetrators, who had ties with a machine in China, gained unauthorized access to the university's cluster of computers reserved for research projects, according to university documents. Once in, the attackers rifled through the cluster's /etc/passwd file, which revealed email addresses and other information on as many as 30,000 active users, including Soghoian, despite his never having applied for an account.

The university cluster not only gave up information that proved crucial in carrying out a successful spear phishing attack. It also provided the ideal cover to help the attackers bypass spam filters. It further proved a useful place to stash hacker tools used in other attacks, including ones that targeted account holders of the Florida Commerce Credit Union and the Sandia Laboratory Federal Credit Union, according to Soghoian.

No word yet on whether admins have tightened security on IU's system. ®

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