Hacker Makes the 5th of November One to Remember

A hacker at Washington State University gave students and information-technology staff members another reason to remember the Fifth of November this year.

Students and instructors arriving for class on Friday morning were greeted by a video message automatically beamed onto projector screens in more than two dozen classrooms. The message was delivered by a hacker dressed up as V, the Guy Fawkes-inspired anti-hero of  the 2006 movie V for Vendetta. After hacking into the university’s academic media system, which manages classroom-presentation and distance-learning technology, the as-of-yet-unidentified culprit or culprits programmed motorized screens to unfurl themselves and scheduled projectors to broadcast the five-minute-long video once every hour. The video—ostensibly a diatribe against campus squirrels and a call to end student apathy—interrupted lectures and cut off access for distance-learning students until the IT staff was able to shut down the program in the early afternoon.

According to Darin Watkins, the university’s executive director for external communications, IT officials in some cases had to unplug computer hard drives in order to stop the hack. “It was a rather sophisticated program,” he said. “Traditional ways of shutting down the software wouldn’t work.”

In V for Vendetta, the protagonist V is a revolutionary fighting a fascist British regime in a dystopian future. V broadcasts a video message calling the British public to action on November 5 in honor of Guy Fawkes’s 1605 attempt to blow up the Houses of Parliament and assassinate King James I. The film ends in a violent explosion—which had some university officials worried that the V-masked hacker might be threatening to do something similar.

Fearing that the video was a precursor to a larger system breach or even Guy Fawkes-esque violence, campus officials responded immediately to the hack. Mr. Watkins said the infected media system was not attached to databases of students’ personal or financial information, and the threat to the larger university system “was not very serious.” And although the video did not appear to be threatening terrorist action, the administration had to “consider all the possibilities,” he said.

Students—including many fans of the V for Vendetta film—saw the video more as an amusing prank than a threat. Michael Bjork, a Washington State senior, saw the video during his Friday-morning statistics class. His professor and peers were initially confused by the video, he said, but quickly picked up on the hacker’s message. Mr. Bjork said the video and the hacker’s Web site——have sparked discussion about university governance, course cuts, and tuition hikes. While Mr. Bjork said he hopes the videos will get students more involved in campus politics, he is afraid that they “will think this is just a cool little prank.”

IT staff members and the campus police are still searching for the person or group responsible for Friday’s breach. According to Mr. Watkins, officials believe the hack may have been an inside job, but they are still following up on leads. Mr. Bjork said students suspect the hacker may be an engineering student because of department-specific criticisms he made in the video against the IT department’s handling of computer upgrades.

Though the investigation is still ongoing, Mr. Watkins said the responsible parties could face “serious charges” for their prank. “Childish pranks just don’t have a place anymore,” he said. “What may have been seen as cute and clever years ago really doesn’t get that kind of reaction today.”

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