Students and staff at the University of Western Sydney were hit with a “deluge of junk email” this week after a student appeared to protest the idea of the university spending $35 million on 13,000 iPads for new students and other IT initiatives.
Starting on Sunday night, hundreds of emails began pouring into student inboxes alerting them that they had been signed up to a number of website’s newsletters, many of which appeared to have an LGBT agenda.
To make matters worse, a number of people hit “reply all” to them to say they didn’t want to be subscribed, which only exacerbated the problem, taking the 250-odd spam messages up to two or three thousand.
A statement from the university’s media department earlier this week to Fairfax Media’s Sun newspaper in Parramatta confirmed the university’s email distribution lists had been “breached”.
“UWS email distribution lists were breached over the weekend. The lists were shut down and a full investigation is underway,” the University of Western Sydney said in a statement to the Sun.
“The breach was limited to the email lists and other than an unfortunate amount of spam received, student and staff UWS IT accounts were not under any threat.”
In an email to students on Friday morning the university’s director of information technology services, Kerry Holling, said the problem had now been addressed. “The deluge of junk email that occurred on Sunday night was regrettable, but I’m pleased to report that the design flaw has been addressed,” Mr Holling said.
Mr Holling’s email didn’t offer any advice as to what student’s should do with the hundreds of emails they had received since Sunday night, and whether they should delete them themselves or let the university do it.
“I want to assure all of you that your email accounts and devices were not compromised by this attack, and that it was limited to the receipt of excessive junk email. Our distribution lists have security that prevents them being used by unauthorised individuals, but clearly this was not sufficient.”
A member of the UWS Student Representative Council contacted Fairfax’s Sun newspaper on Monday to report that accounts had been spammed in protest against the university’s free iPad program.
“This morning virtually all UWS staff and student emails were spammed,” the student said.
“One student reported 400 emails, another staff member said close to 1000, regarding this person’s dissent over the iPad initiative.”
Two of the emails among the spam that appeared to explain the situation were forwarded to the Sun.
“What has happened … is the result of pent up frustration at a university which spits in the face of students and staff with no recourse,” one message, attributed to “students of UWS”, began.
The other email was attributed to “Anonymous”, which may have been a reference to the “hactivist” group that regularly protests by hacking into the websites of organisations.
Despite the first messages being attributed to students at the university, its media department said it didn’t believe the email list breach and spam that followed was attributed to a disgruntled student.
“The university does not believe that disgruntled students were the source of the email breach, and the message purporting to be from disgruntled students was a secondary message that was distributed once the sender ascertained that the email lists were open,” a university spokeswoman said.
The systems breach comes after students protested against course and staff cuts in November.
It also comes as a small group of students used social media and comments on the Sun’s website and others to voice their disapproval at the university for giving away 13,000 iPads to new students and staff. Existing students were given a $50 voucher to spend on campus.
with Callan Lawrence of Fairfax Media’s Sun.