Are hackers failing to make the grade?

Ever since the 1983 film “War Games”, many a failing student has dreamt of emulating Matthew Broderick and – no, not starting a thermonuclear war – hacking into their school computer system to change their grades.

Now a 19-year-old college student who wasn’t even alive when “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” was released in cinemas, has been arrested accused of breaking into his college’s network.

Christopher Fowler, a computer science major at Georgia Highlands College, is accused of stealing his professor’s login and password to make changes to several of his grades on the school’s network. According to John Bankhead of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, if found guilty of breaking into the computer system the young man could face between one and 15 years in prison, and a sizeable fine.

Bankhead also confirmed to reporters that Fowler, who is currently being held at Bartow County jail, is also accused of hacking into the college’s VOIP system to listen in on phone conversations. If convicted of the charge of unlawful eavesdropping, Fowler could receive a sentence of five years in prison.

Cases like this are a timely reminder that it’s not just big businesses who need to defend their networks from hackers. Schools around the world need to be on their guard not only against conventional cybercriminals, but also errant students who may be misusing their computer prowess.

Many a student has probably dreamed of a short-cut to academic success, but unauthorised access to your school’s grade database is likely to end at best in detention, and at worst a lengthy spell in jail.

So, here’s my message to all the computer students out there who may be considering a little recreational hacking to improve their end-of-year results: Don’t. If you blot your copy book by breaking into your school network – however poorly it may be protected – then you are breaking the law. Furthermore, you may be risking your career and find that future employers take a dim view of your criminal record.

If some of your grades are poor, then maybe you’re spending too much time in computer class playing World of Warcraft, and not enough time doing your studies?

Long term followers of the Sophos website will remember that this is not the first time that examination marks have changed under suspicious circumstances.