MIT says a hacker altered class grades : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

By David Abel, Globe Correspondent, 3/9/2000

AMBRIDGE - A hacker broke into an MIT computer system and altered the grades of 22 students in a biology class, institute officials said yesterday.

The grades of 20 of 120 students in an undergraduate cell biology class were lowered, while two others were given higher marks, said officials of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The professor and teaching assistants for the class declined to talk about the investigation, but an institute spokesman said officials have identified someone from outside the class as the culprit. The spokesman would not say whether the person was a student at MIT.

The grade-tampering scandal has left students uneasy, since the professor, Harvey Lodish, announced there had been a cheating incident at the end of class last Thursday, pleading for students to come forward if they knew who was responsible.

''From the beginning, my only hope was that it was someone from outside the class,'' sophomore Tara Mullaney, 19, said before a section of the class met yesterday. ''Since then, [the professor and teaching assistants] have been trying to keep this low.''

Teaching assistants noticed changes to grades on the class's first exam after comparing hard copies with scores recorded on the computer. Believing that the school's computer system is secure, professors suspect that the hacker filched one of their passwords, students said.

But Lodish and the teaching assistants were tight-lipped about the breach.

''I will not talk with you about this,'' Lodish responded to a Globe query by e-mail. ''The situation is being resolved, and all discussions about this issue are completely confidential.''

Ken Campbell, an institute spokesman, said that the person responsible for the tampering had been identified and that school officials are investigating the person's motive and means of access.

Some students speculated that the hacker may have intended to set up the students whose grades were raised.

''They know who they are and why they did it,'' said Alanna Pinkerton, 19, a junior in the biology class. ''The professors and the teaching assistants also know; everything else is hearsay.''

The two students whose grades were increased are unlikely to have left themselves open to cheating charges, a biology faculty member said.

''It just wouldn't be a sensible thing to increase your own grades,'' said Bob Sauer, chairman of the biology department. ''But what I've heard is it's something far less nefarious.''

There have been previous incidents of cheating at MIT.

In 1990, 78 of the 250 undergraduates in an introductory engineering course were found to have turned in identical computer codes on a homework assignment.

Many of those students said cheating was rampant at MIT. A study a year later found that 83 percent of MIT students admitted to cheating on homework at least once during the 1991-92 school year.

In that survey, nearly half of all students admitted stealing other people's phraseology, ideas, or arguments. About 40 percent said they had misrepresented or fudged data in a lab report or research paper, and about one-fifth said they had copied from another person's paper or published work without acknowledgment.

Still, the consequences for cheating at MIT are grave. If the hacker responsible for tampering with the grades in the cell biology class is a student, then he or she could face expulsion, institute officials said

-- Martin Thompson (, March 10, 2000

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