March 20, 2018

Princeton Accused of "Hacking" Yale

[This is slightly off-topic, but as a Princeton person I have gotten lots of questions about this incident.]

Somebody in Princeton’s admissions office, probably an associate dean of admissions, apparently accessed without authorization a Web site that Yale set up for people who had applied for admission to Yale. Yale says that 11 students’ records were accessed, on 18 occasions. Princeton admits that the accesses occurred, and has suspended the associate dean in question pending an investigation. The FBI is sniffing around.

I don’t have any direct knowledge of the relevant facts, so I’ll just assume for now that the press reports are accurate.

Three comments are in order. First, Yale was pretty irresponsible to put applicants’ private information on the Web with only the applicant’s social security number and birthdate as “passwords.” It’s no secret that it is easy to learn anybody’s SSN and birthdate, so Yale’s scheme left the applicants’ information open to almost any unscrupulous person. According to today’s Washington Post, the Yale site was designed and built by a Yale junior. I wonder how much adult supervision he had. (Of course, none of this can excuse the improper accesses that Princeton people, or anybody else, might have made to the site.)

Second, the Princeton admissions person who apparently made the accesses told the press that he was just trying to verify the insecurity of the Yale system. Whether the facts (e.g. the pattern of accesses) are consistent with this excuse remains to be seen. In any case, it’s an utterly lame excuse, as one could have verified the insecurity of the site without breaching it. This excuse was Slate’s Whopper of the Week.

Finally, this case illustrates one of the differences between computer intrusions and tinkering. An intrusion like this is wrong not because somebody disapproves of it, and not because somebody gains an advantage by doing it, but because it involves an unauthorized access to a system that belongs to somebody else. People often apply the same kind of rhetoric (i.e. “hacking”) to cases of tinkering, where the purported crime is to “break in” to one’s own property.