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A college student in Canada has been expelled after he investigated a security vulnerability in a computer system that could have exposed the personal data of more than 250,000 students, according to an article from Wired.
Last November, Dawson College in Montreal expelled computer science student Hamed Al-Khabaz after he exposed a weakness in Omnivox, a system provided by Skytech Communications to numerous college in that country for the management of student data, including social insurance numbers – the Canadian equivalent to Social Security numbers, Wired reports.
Al-Khabaz found the vulnerability while working with another student on a mobile application that would allow students to access their college accounts on their phones, according to the National Post. The flaw would have enabled anyone to query the system to obtain the social insurance number, home address, phone number and class schedule of any student in the database, the article says.
Initially, the two students were praised for coming forward with the information and were told that the college and Skytech would work on fixing the problem immediately, Wired reports.
However, two days later, Al-Khabaz used the Web-scanning tool Acunetix to see if the flaw had been fixed, but within minutes of starting the scan, he got a call from the president of Skytech telling him to cease and desist, the article says.
According to Wired, “Edouard Taza, the president of Skytech, told the student that his scan was the equivalent of a cyberattack (sic) and that he could go to jail for 6 to 12 months. He then pressured Al-Khabaz to sign a non-disclosure agreement prohibiting him from discussing anything related to Skytech, including the existence of the NDA. Al-Khabaz signed it, but went to reporters on Monday with the story.
“Taza told the National Post that he was happy with the work Al-Khabaz did to uncover the flaw, but that the scan he used to verify if it was fixed had crossed a line.
“‘This type of software should never be used without prior permission of the system administrator, because it can cause a system to crash,’ he told the National Post. ‘He should have known better than to use it without permission, but it is very clear to me that there was no malicious intent. He simply made a mistake.’”
The college, on the other hand, decided to expel him from the computer science program for “serious professional conduct” after 14 of 15 computer science professors voted in favor of the punishment, and Al-Khabaz was also ordered to repay the grants he has received for his studies, Wired reports.
The expulsion letter sent to Al-Khabaz has been made public, stating that the school had previously suspended Al-Khabaz’s access to the college network last September for “injected SQL code,” and made it clear to him that he had violated the school’s IT policy. It appears that this refers to Al-Khabaz’s use of the Acunetix tool the first time to uncover the flaw. When he used it a second time to see if the flaw had been fixed, the school suspended his account again and then referred him to the computer science department for a vote on his punishment, the article says.
The school later said in a statement that he had been warned to cease and desist and had failed to do so, Wired reports. Thereby the school stood by his expulsion. School officials said at a press conference on Tuesday that the issue wasn’t about a single flaw, as it was being portrayed in the press. Al-Khabaz, one official said, had “made an attempt to gain access to a range of systems” and that his activity constituted “a concerted set of attacks on a range of systems.”
However, following the expulsion, Al-Khabaz says he has received multiple job offers, including one from Skytech, which has made a public offer to provide him with a full scholarship to a private college and a part-time job at the company.