UF has suspect in emergency text hack

Published: Thursday, January 22, 2009 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 22, 2009 at 12:02 a.m.

A suspect has been identified and has confessed in the case of a mysterious message sent through the University of Florida's emergency text message system, university officials said Wednesday.

A text message reading, "The monkey got out of the cage," was received at about 8:45 p.m. Tuesday by the cell phones of tens of thousands of current and former UF faculty, staff and students. Many students speculated the message was a racial slur against President Barack Obama, although the man who has admitted sending the message insists the message was sent accidentally and that it was not racially motivated, UF spokesman Steve Orlando said late Wednesday.

Orlando said the man who has admitted to sending the text message is a former employee of UF's text messaging service Mobile Campus, but Orlando said he could not provide further specifics because of an ongoing criminal investigation.

Early indications suggest that UF data was not compromised, he said.

"It does not look like it was hacked into," he said.

Orlando said the message was not authorized by the university or by Mobile Campus and its partner company Acceleration. The investigation is focusing on a security breach in Mobile Campus' system, which sends emergency alerts about hurricanes and campus closings.

Mobile Campus suspended all outgoing messages to determine the cause of the incident and reconfigure its system, according to the company. CEO David Liniado said the company also turned over logs to university police.

"We're working diligently to get to the bottom of it," he said.

UF police are working with the State Attorney's Office and the Gainesville Police Department to determine in whose jurisdiction the case falls before pursuing criminal charges, according to the university. Under state law, a person who accesses a computer system without authorization is guilty of a third-degree felony.

Liniado said most UF students and staff received the message, as well as some former students. There are no indications the message was received by anyone other than individuals associated with the university, he said.

Mobile Campus was started at UF in 2005 and has since expanded to colleges across the country. The Atlanta-based company allows schools to send campus-wide alerts, while also sending promotions to those who agree to receive such offers.

The company sent an e-mail apologizing to individuals who complained about the message. Liniado said the system had never before been used for unauthorized purposes.

"This is the first of its kind," he said.

Speculation on the Web sites Facebook and Live Journal centered on the idea that the message was a racial slur meant to coincide with Obama's inauguration Tuesday. At least one person offered the alternative explanation that it was actually a reference to former President George W. Bush's departure from the White House.

But Orlando says the man who has confessed to sending the message insists the message was an accident and that it was not intended as a racial slur.

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