Student info compromised at U of G


University of Guelph students opened their e-mail inboxes last Wednesday to learn of a situation no one ever wants to deal with — personal information held by their school may have been compromised.

A break and enter at an office in the University Centre resulted in 15 electronic devices being stolen, including a mix of laptops, desktop computers, a handheld device and a portable hard drive. The theft occurred at around 7:30 a.m. on Jan. 27 and was discovered later the same day by university staff.

While the loss of most of the devices does not pose a threat to students, Chuck Cunningham, the assistant vice president for the communications and public affairs department at the University of Guelph, specified that one in particular may be problematic.

“The one question that gives us concern was a device used to move information from one computer to another computer,” he explained. “Information on it was deleted regularly, my understanding is that people who know what they’re doing with sophisticated equipment could still drill down to access information that may be on the device somewhere.”

The information may include names, addresses, social insurance numbers, dates of birth and university identification numbers. Difficulty in determining exactly what information may have been accessible through the device and which students were impacted were part of the reason behind the delay in contacting students.

Cunningham clarified, “There was so much information that was passed through that device that it took as long as it did to get a sense of who might have lost data and who to contact. They weren’t actually able to specify everything that might have been on the device when it went missing, but given the lack of information, the university decided to cast the net pretty widely and contact as many people as possible that could have been affected.”

Additionally, the offices where the theft took place were inaccessible for the first couple days as police investigated and university staff attempted to determine what had been stolen.

An e-mail was sent to 19, 000 students explaining the situation and identified the steps that had been taken by the university in response to the break and enter. Cunningham confirmed that the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario has also been contacted.

Mariam Javed, a third-year environmental engineering student at the University of Guelph, got the news on Thursday.

“I was really upset, because I didn’t really understand what was going on,” she said. “How can our personal information be on a computer that’s so easily accessible?”
Javed hasn’t heard from the university since and said that based on the e-mail, “It didn’t seem like they were doing enough.” She intends to contact the school to find out more information about what actions the school is taking and what steps she can take.

No students have reported identity theft as a result of the lost information at this time.

Meanwhile, staff in the computing and communications departments are determining steps to be taken to better protect students for the future.

“The university is reviewing what happened. It was a result of a break and enter, so the information wasn’t left lying in a public spot or anything like that,” said Cunningham. “But that said, we’re taking steps to mitigate the risk of this happening again and that all possible precautions are in place to secure personal information.”
Cunningham was unaware of any suspects being identified thus far.

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