Colleges Cope with Computer Data Security; Privacy Breakdowns Are an Issue beyond Three Jacksonville Schools

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Byline: MATT COLEMAN

Privacy is a foreign concept to many college students.

Between Facebook status updates, Twitter posts and rampant social networking, reams of personal information are available through a quick web search.

But even the most chronic oversharer knows some data is meant to stay private.

Three Northeast Florida colleges, however, have had some issues keeping sensitive information secure.

The University of North Florida, Florida State College at Jacksonville and Edward Waters College have all had security breaches in the past year exposing personal data belonging to students and faculty.

The most recent case was also the most serious.

An overseas hacker compromised UNF's computer system in September and accessed the personal information of nearly 107,000 students, potential students and employees of the Jacksonville school. The data included names, dates of birth and Social Security numbers. An FBI investigation is ongoing, and it remains unclear if any of the personal information has been used illegally.

The UNF invasion is one of the largest security breaches at a public institution in years, said Paul Stephens, director of policy and advocacy at the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a nonprofit based in San Diego.

But it's far from the only one. He said privacy breakdowns have become major problems for dozens of universities.

"We've seen more and more colleges falling victim to hackers and other computer security issues in the past couple years," Stephens said. "And it's not really surprising. The type of computer architecture that colleges have, the open-endedness of it all and the number of individuals who use their servers, contributes to a level of access that skilled hackers can use to their advantage."

Stephens said servers storing personal data and sensitive files are often common points of weakness for college security experts. Valdosta State University in Georgia was rocked by a breach similar to UNF's in February, when the school's IT department noticed a hacker had accessed a server storing the personal data of more than 170,000 people.

Jeff Durfee, director of UNF's network security, said the school is working feverishly to guarantee that a comparable breach never happens again. His staff has reviewed the college's security protocols and procedures, looking for the tiniest cracks in the defenses.

"In this field, it's an arms race," Durfee said. "The bad guys are constantly finding new vulnerabilities and ways in, and we're backtracking trying to stop them. It's constantly escalating, and we're only as good as the workforce and the equipment we have. …