Data Security Breach at Valdosta State University

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Students and faculty members at Georgia's Valdosta State University joined the ranks of thousands of other colleges and university communities victimized by hackers in the past year when the school's IT department discovered someone broke into a server storing the personal data of more than 170,000 people.

The compromised data included names, Social Security numbers and grades, according to Valdosta officials.

John Newton, director of the university's information technology staff, said in a statement that the breach had first been detected on Dec. 11 and a subsequent investigation found that hackers had accessed the data as far back as Nov. 11.

"An initial investigation has found no evidence that any personal data was accessed or transferred," Newton said. "The breached server was secured and removed from the network. We are continuing the investigation with assistance from University Police and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation."

Valdosta State is now in the process of contacting all affected individuals and has set up a Web site for students and faculty to receive updates on the investigation and any illicit use of the compromised data.

"We regret the incident and are reviewing and revising our procedures and practices to minimize the risk of a recurrence," Newton said.

December was a particularly insecure month for college and university computer systems.

Eastern Illinois officials in December found that hackers accessed a server holding the personal information of more than 9,000 former, current, and prospective students after it became infected with a number of viruses that allowed the attackers to have their way with student application data stretching from March 2000 through November 2009.

At Penn State University, more than 30,000 students were told that a series of malware-induced data breaches at computers hosted at three different campus locations had exposed their personal information for an unknown period of time.

Similar attacks were unearthed in the past year at Montana State University, the University of Michigan, UC-Berkeley, Eastern Illinois University, Chaminade University, and the University of Alabama.

IT security experts say colleges and universities are particularly attractive to hackers because research computers have Internet access, abundant processing power and, obviously, tons of data because they're constantly conducting large-scale research projects.

Larry Barrett is a senior editor at InternetNews.com, the news service of Internet.com, the network for technology professionals.