By Cindy Kuang
Stanford was recently the target of two fraudulent email hacking campaigns that University investigations suggest may have come from state-sponsored groups. While Stanford found no evidence that either attempt was successful, campus officials have urged anyone who uses the Stanford email system to remain vigilant about online security.
The two recent larger-scale attacks occurred in late summer and in late October, respectively, and were targeted mostly at individuals at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI) and the Hoover Institution. In both cases, individuals received malicious messages containing information aimed specifically at them in a technique known as “spear phishing.”
About half a dozen individuals received malicious emails in the first incident. In response, Stanford notified FSI and the Hoover Institution of the campaign. The second attack affected a larger group of 49 individuals. In both cases, Stanford reached out to those involved to verify that no actual breach had been detected.
According to Stanford News, the University has “reason to believe” that the campaigns were carried out by “the same government-sponsored groups … [as those who] have been the subject of recent coverage in the national press.”
Information Security Office officials did not respond to request for comment, and Stanford spokesperson Brad Hayward declined to provide further information on the nature of the attacks. However, the statement seems to reference alleged Russian-sponsored hacking of the Democratic National Committee that U.S. officials claimed was an attempt to interfere with the election.
Similar spear-phishing campaigns have been detected at a number of universities and policy research institutions across the country in August and within the last month. Shortly after Donald Trump’s election victory, a new wave of election-themed emails was reportedly sent to individuals affiliated with various organizations related to national security, defense and international affairs.
Thousands of phishing messages are sent to Stanford each day, according to Hayward, most of which are automatically identified and filtered out. Spear phishing also targets a smaller number of University community members every day.
“These spear phishing efforts are becoming more sophisticated,” Hayward wrote in an email to The Daily.
In light of these incidents, Stanford has reminded members of the campus community to be wary of unsolicited and unexpected emails. Individuals who receive suspicious messages are advised to call the purported sender to confirm their authenticity before opening any attachments or clicking any links.
Stanford also launched a Phishing Awareness Service in September to familiarize community members with spear phishing tactics. The service sends mock emails to departments that opt in to the program.
Contact Cindy Kuang at ckuang ‘at’ stanford.edu.