3 charged with hacking professors' grade books

8:37 PM, Jun 14, 2013   |    comments
(Photo: Brent Drinkut, Journal and Courier, Lafayette, Ind.)
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WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - On paper, Roy Chaoran Sun was a remarkable student who earned straight A's in at least 10 engineering courses at Purdue University here - eventually graduating with a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering in May 2010.

So, too, was his friend, Mitsutoshi Shirasaki, an aeronautics and astronautics major from Japan. In 24 courses from spring 2010 to fall 2012, the lowest grades Shirasaki received were a handful of B's. The rest were A's and A pluses.

STORY: Cheating on tests goes digital

But their high marks didn't come from hard work and studying, investigators say. Instead, the duo hacked into Purdue professors' university accounts and gave their own report cards a significant boost.

In April, the Tippecanoe County prosecutor's office charged Sun; Shirasaki; and a third acquaintance, Sujay Sharma, all 24, with multiple felonies and misdemeanors - among them, conspiracy to commit computer tampering, conspiracy to commit burglary and conspiracy to commit computer trespass.

The charges were made public Thursday afternoon.

"This was no outside attack. This was ... students who were very smart, who decided to take their knowledge and their wisdom and used it for things they shouldn't have used it for," Purdue Police Chief John Cox said.

Cox said he and Capt. Steve Dietrich, a Purdue detective who has been with campus police for 30 years, believe that the alleged grade-changing scheme - and the extent of the alleged computer tampering - is a first for the university about 125 miles southeast of Chicago that has almost 31,000 undergraduate students.

Other college students elsewhere in the past two years have used their technical expertise to change grades:

• In May, a University of Oklahoma student in Norman, Okla., was charged with five counts of computer fraud, accused of changing the passwords of six faculty members to alter his grades. The case is pending.

• In March and April, two former Miami University students in Oxford, Ohio, pleaded guilty to changing 81 grades for themselves and several fraternity brothers over the course of four semesters. One was sentenced earlier this month to two years probation, a $6,000 fine and 100 hours of community service; the other will be sentenced June 27 and faces a six-month jail sentence and a $1,000 fine.

• In August 2012, a former Albany State University student in Georgia pleaded guilty to changing four of his grades after learning his professor's password. He was expelled, sentenced to two years probation and had to pay a $2,000 fine.

• In February 2012, a student at Temple University Ambler, a suburban campus of the Philadelphia school, pleaded guilty to changing six of his own grades. He was sentenced to two years probation and fined $300.

• In 2011, private Santa Clara University in California identified changes in the grades of about 60 former undergraduates. It brought in the FBI to investigate, and a university spokeswoman said Friday that the case is still open and no one has been charged.

Sun's grade changes date to May 2008 and continued until his final semester, according to a probable cause affidavit filed with the charges. His original grades were nine F's and one incomplete.

Meanwhile, Shirasaki is suspected of changing 24 grades between May 2010 and December 2012 - in some instances, going from failing to A's and B's. Two A's that he actually earned, for classes in Japanese and aeronautics and astronautics engineering, were raised to A pluses.

Sharma, a nuclear engineering major, had just one class grade changed: an engineering course that went from a D to an A, the affidavit states. But he is accused of accessing course tests and acting as Shirasaki's lookout.

The investigation began in November, when an engineering professor contacted the university's information technology security services department because someone unknown had changed his password. Someone changed his password again in December.

Through that, information technology officials learned that the professor's account was accessed to change a student's grade. They contacted Purdue police Jan. 3.

Shirasaki was identified as a suspect because he was logged into Purdue's wireless network under his own account when the professor's account was hacked, changing his grade from C to B. Further investigation uncovered prior grade changes.

In separate interviews with Shirasaki that followed, Shirasaki's girlfriend and Sharma, Purdue officials learned more:

According to the affidavit, Shirasaki claimed that he learned how to access professors' accounts through Sun, breaking into professors' offices and switching their computer keyboards with identical ones.

The suspects then allegedly installed key logging devices to the original keyboards and broke into the professors' offices again to make a second switch. The key-logging devices allowed the suspects to figure out their professors' account passwords.

Cox said Thursday that the suspects appeared purposely to avoid cameras in their professors' office buildings.

Purdue has alarms that can detect if a computer or even a keyboard is moved from computer labs, Cox said, but alarms did not go off in any of the thefts from professors' offices. The office break-ins occurred late at night or in the early morning, the affidavit states.

Sharma and Sun have been arrested, according to Tippecanoe County Prosecutor Pat Harrington and Purdue Police Capt. Eric Chin. Shirasaki is in Japan, Harrington said.

Tippecanoe County Jail staff said Sharma was booked May 20 and posted bond the next day.

Sun, now a graduate student at Boston University, remained in jail late Thursday. Cox said police are sharing information about the investigation with officials there.

Sun's degree is being reviewed and could be revoked. A hearing will give Sun an opportunity to respond to the allegations, said Jeffery Stefancic, associate dean of students.

Purdue officials did an internal audit of grade changes to check for other problems, and among thousands of grade changes actually done by professors none, was found beyond this case, Cox said.

(Copyright © 2013 USA TODAY)

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