Internet hacker suspected in computer crashes

by David Hyland

An Internetwide hacker attack struck the University late Monday, but computer specialists chalked it up as a nuisance that will have no lasting effects.
University computer specialist Charles Betz discovered “the blue screen of death” on several computers when he reported for duty in the College of Pharmacy. The screen, which pops up when there is a technical error in a Windows networking programs, hit 300 to 500 computers across the University.
“It’s very unusual for one of them to crash — for two of them to crash at the same time points to outside interference,” Betz said.
Although technicians have been unable to pin down the exact cause, they said they think someone penetrated the University’s computer network through the Internet.
John Ladwig, security architect for Network and Telecommunication services, said the intruders launched a program that make computers “drop dead.”
“Basically, what happens is the machine goes inactive and it needs to be re-booted,” Ladwig said. “Then everything’s fine.”
Although no damaged or lost files have been reported thus far, if files were frozen when the attack occurred, Ladwig said some files could have been lost.
“It was more along the lines of electronic vandalism,” Betz said. “It’s a lot easier to shut down a computer remotely than it is to actually get access to it.”
The University’s computers were not the only machines that had their security breached. A computer official at the University of Wisconsin-Madison confirmed that his school, as well as Northwestern University, was affected by the attack.
Beyond the University and those schools, it’s difficult to determine who else was affected.
“It sounds like it was quite widespread,” Ladwig said. “I mean large parts of the Internet.”
In the Carlson School of Management, the intrusion affected a half-dozen computers involved in printer and file sharing, said Mike Finnegan, user services specialist of Office of Information Technology.
Bob Hain, scientist for the Mechanical Engineering department, installed a protective barrier or patch to fend off future attacks on his department’s computers.
But until the University conducts an investigation, what protective actions can be taken schoolwide are uncertain.
“I’m not confident we understand exactly what the mechanism of the attack was or if there were particular counter-measures that could have prevented it,” Ladwig said.