Carleton kid couldn’t hack it

A third-year math student at Carleton University has been charged with mischief to data and unauthorized use of a computer, and could face up to 10 years in prison after exposing security flaws in the university’s computer system.

Mansour Moufid, 20, used a key logging program to breach the school’s card-reading software and exposed the confidential information of 32 students. His case is renewing the debate over whether hacking can ever be ethical.

Moufid claims that he wrote the software to reveal flaws in Carleton’s card-reader software, and sent a 16-page report to the University Secretary’s Office explaining his actions. With the students’ user names and passwords, he had access to students’ e-mail, library records and card balances. Moufid made mistakes when covering his tracks, however, and his identity was exposed and given to the police.

Moufid’s report, available online, explains that “the author hereby wishes to elicit a response from the reader and the community leading to greater awareness of the issues of privacy and security (or lack thereof) affecting students.” Moufid goes on to say that the Campus Card, like U of T’s T-Card, does not store passwords, and is a “weak link” when combined with rudimentary key-logging hacks. He claims that in its current form the card could be exploited for financial fraud “on a large scale, and it is likely that this is merely the tip of the iceberg.”

It is not known whether Moufid will remain a student at the university, but spokesperson Steve Blais said the matter was taken to police before the student was identified. “The [administration was] deeply concerned about the nature of the breach, and the university believed that it was a criminal act, so we called the police because it was appropriate.”

Bruce Lee-Shanok, a law student at Dalhousie and a Waterloo graduate in computer science, has started a Facebook group called “Leave Mansour Moufid Alone.”

“Ultimately,” he said, “what Mansour did was a public service. Imagine the harm that someone with his knowledge could have done. Thanks to him, Carleton is aware that a problem exists. The fact that he’s being treated like a criminal should be making people angry.”

Carleton’s Campus Card is similar to U of T’s T-Card. A magnetic stripe on the back contains a student’s username, linking it to the university database, and on the front is a bar code with library information. The main difference, according to Adam Wunker, a help desk advisor at Robart’s Information Commons, is that U of T stores student data differently. Access to one account, such as UTORid, does not lead to ROSI access. U of T students also use their T-Cards for fewer things, whereas Carleton gives discounts to students who use their card to purchase goods on campus, including textbooks.

“Keylogging is the biggest vulnerability,” said Wunker, but there are very few ways to install such software on U of T’s computers. “There have only been a couple cases of circumvention in the last few years,” he said, and those didn’t endanger the information of multiple students.

Moufid’s case is spurring intense debate on tech websites.

“The university should spend money hiring admins with better computer and teaching skills rather than paying lawyers,” wrote Aqui, one user on the popular site Slashdot.

Others disagreed. “If you steal something and decide to bring it back, it doesn’t mean you didn’t steal it,” said a representative for the High Tech Crime Unit at the Ottawa Police Department. “This was a serious breach of [the students’] data. If we don’t prosecute these things, it leaves the door open for other people to do the same thing.”

Moufid will appear at an Ottawa court on October 15.

Elbow wins Britain’s Mercury Prize

They’ve been around since 1990 and released four critically acclaimed albums, but it’s only now that Manchester five-piece Elbow have achieved international fame. How did they do it? Simple—by knocking off such luminaries as Radiohead, British Sea Power, and Estelle to claim the £20,000 Nationwide Mercury Prize. Much like Canada’s Polaris Music Prize, the award has a history for rewarding the underdog ahead of more commercially successful acts. Despite being virtually unknown in North America, Elbow have built a reputation as one of Britain’s premier indie bands and were nominated for the prize in 2001. Their album The Seldom Seen Kid was named the winner at a star-studded event at London’s Grosvenor House Hotel last week. “I know I’m supposed to be cool and say something coy, but it’s literally the best thing that’s ever happened to us,” said singer Guy Garvey. Whether or not the award will pave the way for (sorely deserved) greater success outside their native land remains to be seen.

Artsci budget loses four per cent

The Faculty of Arts & Science budget will decrease by 4 per cent this year, making 2008 the tenth consecutive year of cuts. The faculty’s base budget has been slashed by an average of 3.3 per cent annually since the academic year 1999-2000, and a total of $41.8 million has been removed.

Rather than cutting costs centrally, as has been the norm over the past seven years, costs are being handed over to individual units under the faculty. Each department, college, center, and institute will lose 4 per cent of its budget, except for the smallest.

“Despite making cuts we are doing everything in our power to ensure that we continue to offer the courses students need to fulfill their degree program requirements,” said interim Arts & Science dean Meric Gertler, “and we have succeeded in doing that.” Gertler said that the faculty had increased the number of total spaces offered in courses year after year despite the loss in budgets.

Many departments have been forced to cancel courses to negotiate the cuts. While the “Dean’s Promise” ensures that course cancellations don’t keep students from graduating in their last year, removed courses mean students have to go out of their way to cover requirements.

Danielle Sandhu of Woodworth College, who is finishing her Peace and Conflict Studies program this year, was disappointed when she found that a course she needed to compete her program was not being offered this year. Having declared POL 417 as a requirement for her program at the end of her first year, Sandhu had to request for a substitute course, and wait to have it approved by the program director.

“It was not a difficult process, but I was disappointed because I had been waiting three years to take that course, due to all the pre-requisites” said Sandhu.

“The support for undergraduate education is not what we would like it to be,” said Alex Bewell, chair of the Department of English. Bewell said it is the responsibility of Queen’s Park to increase funding.

Chair of the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, Christina Kramer, said that her department had to resort to external funding to stay afloat. “We are very fortunate that we have successfully raised external funds from many communities, funds which help support language study in Polish, Ukrainian, Macedonian, and Croatian as well as Finnish, Estonian, and Hungarian.”

“The cuts force us to concentrate on our core mission, which is providing language, literature, and culture classes in ten different languages,” she said. “Other activities have already been diminished and we had to cancel a very popular second year course.”

“It speaks to U of T not seeing a priority in liberal arts education, humanities, and social sciences,” said UTSU VP external Dave Scrivener. “The University can make more money and get private funding from sciences, engineering and other professional faculties.”

U of T has increased revenue by raising tuition fees and international student enrolment. Tuition fees increases this year averaged 4.26 per cent across all programs and departments for domestic students.

However, according to Gertler costs have risen faster than tuition fees. He also pointed out that tuition fees account for only about one third of the faculty’s revenue.

Gertler and Scrivener agreed that the provincial government needs to increase funding. Currently, the provincial government is responsible for 40 percent of the operating budget.

“I think the most important thing is to make the case as clearly as we can to Queen’s Park that the grant revenues have to increase. It’s just impossible to continue to offer a high quality education so long as our grant revenue is declining,” said Gertler.

With files from Naushad Ali Husein

When particles collide

On Sept. 10, scientists and citizens tuned in for the successful startup of what is being touted as the greatest experiment in particle physics: the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). Found underground at the CERN laboratories near Geneva, the world’s largest particle accelerator is the result of 14 years of collaborative efforts that bridged languages and nations, including contributions from several University of Toronto scientists.

“It’s a fantastic moment,” said LHC project leader Lyn Evans about the collider’s first successful particle steering. “We can look forward to a new era of understanding about the origins and evolution of the universe.”

Before entering the main particle accelerator loop, positively charged particles called protons are channeled through a series of circular paths, in which superconducting magnets increase their velocity. As the protons are shifted to larger and larger circular paths, they approach the speed of light. At this point, energy added through magnetic and electric fields makes the particles heavier. The final stage of the LHC channels these “heavy” particles into the main accelerator, an underground tube with a circumference of 27 kilometers, located at the France-Switzerland border. Once inside, the particles are split into two channels and travel around the final track in opposite directions. The collision of these two groups of high-speed particles occurs at unprecedented levels of high energy. The results of these collisions should allow scientists to discover the fundamental forces and particles that were at work in creating the universe.

The LHC hopes to validate the Standard Model, which according to U of T Physics Professor Robert Orr has “allowed us to understand the behaviour of the minute particles that make up matter.” While the Standard Model represents everything humans currently understand about particle physics, there are several phenomena left unexplained, including the origin of mass. It is thought that the “Higgs Mechanism” may be the answer, in which case a so-called Higgs boson particle would exist. The Higgs boson, occasionally referred to as the “God Particle,” is theorized to be the crucial link in explaining how matter has mass. This elusive entity has not yet been revealed by less powerful particle accelerators. U of T’s role in the LHC project is focused on the ATLAS (AToroidal Lhc ApparatuS) experiment, one of the goals of which is and attempt to find Higgs boson particles.

At an event held by the Department of Physics last week, U of T ATLAS team members revealed that preliminary data is promising. Dr. Richard Teuscher, an experimental physicist at U of T, works with the LHC at CERN. He indicated that the next step is studying the calorimetric component, which investigates the heat of reactions or any physical changes that occur.

While this initial startup is a monumental moment in history, Dr. Teuscher is quick to note, “We will need several years to find the needles in the haystack such as the Higgs boson.” Two to three years worth of LHC data will be required in order for scientists to make meaningful analyses about Higgs boson particles. Due to the relative low Higgs boson production rate, for every few hours the collider is running, scientists estimate that only one of these sought-after particles will be generated.

The first stage in unraveling the universe’s origins has already yielded positive results. The operational LHC gives a preliminary picture of what occurs during the time of collision. LHC collaborators point out that it will take several weeks to months for the particles to reach the critical speeds necessary to surmise creating the Higgs boson particle.

Concordia: No friend of Facebook

On Sept. 1, Concordia University prohibited access to Facebook and other social networking websites on school computers due to security concerns. The university said spam and viruses related to Facebook could damage its internal network, which services approximately 50,000 students, faculty, and staff members. In addition, admin said the openness of personal information on these sites could lead to numerous phishing scams.

The ban only applies to desktops, so Facebook addicts can still get a fix through a wireless connection and in residence.

Astronomy tours offer stellar view

Only on the roof of the McLennan Physical Laboratories building can you experience something of astronomical proportion.

On the first Thursday of every month a free talk and tour is given by a PhD student or a specialist in the field of astrophysics. The 45-minute lecture on modern astrophysics begins at 9:10 p.m., followed by a public viewing through the telescope atop the McLennan Labs building.

PhD student Kaitlin Kratter has been the quick-witted lecturer for the past week, amusing the audience with knowledge and humour. “Asteroids,” she quipped one night. “Can’t live with them, can’t live without them.” Her presentation includes illustrations that highlight astronomical findings aided by satellites and attendees are able to ask questions throughout the talk.

On this particular night, the lecture hall is packed with attendees of all ages. One audience member asks, “Can a large enough asteroid cause destruction on earth?” Kratter answers that only an asteroid with the width of approximately one kilometer could cause significant destruction. A bright-eyed 10-year-old sits to the right of the hall with his father; the audience is stunned when he correctly answers a question about an asteroid’s orbit.

The large refracting telescope is the night’s highlight. Usually when the sky is clear, the state of the art facilities allow for excellent viewing of the heavens. Double stars, the moon, and even Jupiter can be seen through the telescope. When the weather is uncompromising, a virtual telescope is available as PhD students patiently answer questions, while taking viewers on a virtual tour.

People of all ages are encouraged to attend with free refreshments available. Even if you’re not into astrophysics, Thursday night astronomy tours provide a point of view any star gazer can appreciate.

U of T stargazers first to photograph planet

A group of University of Toronto astronomers have become the first to photograph a planet orbiting a star similar to our own sun. Using the Gemini North telescope on Mauna Kea in Hawaii, the scientists were able to capture images of the pair, which reside over 500 light-years away.

Further tests will confirm without doubt that the planetary object is indeed orbiting the star. Despite recent discoveries of planets lying outside the solar system, none have been found alongside a companion star.

“This is the first time we have directly seen a planetary mass object in a likely orbit around a star like our sun. If we confirm that this object is indeed gravitationally tied to the star, it will be a major step forward,” said David Lafrenicre to the U of T Bulletin.

The discovery poses a new problem for astrophysicists. The distance between the two objects challenges theoretical models that dealt with the nature of planet and star formation.

“This discovery is yet another reminder of the truly remarkable diversity of worlds out there and it’s a strong hint that nature may have more than one mechanism for producing planetary mass companions to normal stars,” Professor Ray Jayawardhana told the U of T Bulletin.

Did you know that not all bees live in hives?

Solitary bees, more commonly known as mason bees, do not live in hives. Instead, they live in a nest constructed entirely by the female. Unlike social bees, solitary bees are able to live independently, which is where they get their name. They can provide shelter and sufficient food for their brood all on their own. All female solitary bees are fertile and carry out the roles that both worker and queen bees fulfill in a hive. Unlike honeybees, they do not produce honey or beeswax.

These bees serve a specific ecological role in pollinating many flowering plants. It is claimed that Albert Einstein said, “If the bee disappears from the surface of the earth, man would have no more than four years to live.” This supposed quote still resonates today. Most species of non-solitary bees visit flowers in order to collect nectar, a process in which they accidentally pick up pollen. This leads to pollination of the next flower they visit. Pollinators are therefore a medium that flowering plants utilize for sexual reproduction.

Solitary bees purposefully collect pollen from various kinds of flowers. Compared to other types of bees, they transport a greater amount of pollen, due to advanced carrying structures on their bodies. These structures are extremely useful for this species; they often mix pollen with nectar to make a pollen-nectar paste, which is used to provide nourishment for their brood in the nest.

Instead of a hive, solitary bees nest in tubular spaces, such as holes in wood, hollowed out reeds or twigs, or underground tunnels. Female solitary bees lay their eggs in “cells” in the nest. They fill these cells with the pollen-nectar paste, which serves as a source of food for their larva. One nest may contain several cells, each nourishing a larva.

Occasionally, solitary bees are used in the place of honeybees for commercial pollination. They only sting or attack if they are physically threatened, since they have no hive to guard. This makes them a friendlier species, prompting gardeners to set out mason bee houses to attract them to their gardens as pets.