If you have a NetID account through Texas A&M, be warned. Your password may be in the hands of criminals. A&M officials announced Wednesday that a hacker or hackers attempted to breach the university's security system.
Early Saturday morning, officials say their NetID system was infiltrated by an individual or group. Their strike was immediately detected and stopped soon after. But in that time, university officials say some or all of 96,000 NetID passwords may have been obtained.
"We recognize the sensative nature of this incident, and want to ensure to our students, faculty and staff that we take this very seriously," said A&M's interim president, Eddie Davis, "and we are doing everything in our power to protect and ensure the entire Aggie family is fully protected from the unauthorized access of any private information."
That includes the university's call for all NetID users to change their passwords immediately. E-mails were sent out late Wednesday afternoon, and will continue to be sent until all passwords are changed.
NetID is best known for providing an e-mail system, along with the availability of grades and transcripts, and even lecture notes posted by instructors. A&M officials stress no payroll, financial or student administrative systems were affected in this incident, and that all security gaps have been filled in the aftermath.
At first, it was not known if the attack was from a person, a virus, or even an internet worm. But now, A&M officials are saying, without question, this was an expert individual or group that penetrated A&M's security system to make a grab at the NetID passwords.
"I am confident that the particular intrusion that we experienced was so well disguised that only a real expert would have discovered it in the first place," said Thomas Putnam, the executive director of computing and information services for A&M, "so that's giving me a lot of confidence in our staff."
Part of the reason A&M is just now coming forward with details on this potential breach is because of the on-going criminal investigation, which began shortly after the incident. Officials say they did not want to tip their hands or give out incorrect information.
"All of my faith and trust is with Texas A&M in trying to find the person who did it," said student Heidi Parsons, "and also taking the exact steps they need to secure all information."
NetID is not only used by A&M, but also by the Health Science Center and TEEX, among others. Students, faculty and staff of all the affected organizations should have received notification by early Wednesday evening.
A&M officials say those notifications will continue, and that eventually, a cut-off date will be set to ensure all passwords will change. They hope by next week, all persons affected will have taken the necessary steps to change their passwords.
"We deeply regret that this preventative security measure is necessary, and apologize for any inconvenience the mandatory password reset will cause," Davis said, "but it is our best method going forward to protect any compromise to system data."
It is not known exactly what, if anything, the hacker or hackers obtained, but in a worst case scenario, officials say in the time the criminals were in the system, they would have had time to obtain the estimated 96,000 passwords.
The following is the statement sent out from Texas A&M Wednesday concerning the hacking incident:
Texas A&M University authorities announced today that an attempt has been made to gain unauthorized access to electronic files containing encrypted passwords to some university accounts, but not affecting the financial, payroll or student administrative systems.
Texas A&M officials emphasize they are committed to protecting the university against unauthorized access to electronic information and have launched an extensive investigation to determine the identity of the person or persons who attempted the break in to the university system.
"Despite the fact that the security violation was quickly identified and stopped, we believe it is important to take all necessary steps to ensure that our students, faculty and staff are fully protected from unauthorized use of their private information," said Texas A&M Interim President Eddie J. Davis. "As a precautionary measure, all students, faculty and staff will be required to reset all current NetID passwords immediately."
"While we know of no illegal or fraudulent use of information as a result of the unauthorized access, we are committed to taking all possible steps to avoid use of such information," Davis added.
Individuals may change their password online by visiting the Aggie Computing Gateway at http://gateway.tamu.edu/ and clicking on the "Change NetID Password" link. For updated information regarding this issue or any related information, go to http://cis.tamu.edu/netid/. For tips on how to protect personal information, see http://infosec.tamu.edu/personalsecurity.html.
"We regret that this preventative security measure will cause inconvenience, and we encourage anyone who needs assistance to contact Help Desk Central which provides around-the-clock service," said Tom Putnam, executive director of computing & information services.
Contact Help Desk Central by phone at (979) 845-8300, via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or in person at Room 1112 of the Computing Services Center.
"Our first priority is to make sure our customers' private account information stays that way-private," Putnam said.