RealTime IT News

Possible Racist SMS Message Rocks U. of Florida

A possibly racist text message sent to the cell phones of 42,000 students and faculty of the University of Florida at Gainesville, Fla., has sparked widespread anger.

"The monkey got out of the cage," the message said.

Angry recipients filed complaints with campus police and university authorities. The message was sent out Tuesday night.

The text messaging service, which is part of the university alert system, was immediately shut down by its providers, Mobile Campus and Acceleration, and an investigation was launched.

Stephen Orlando, a spokesperson for the university, told InternetNews.com that a suspect has been identified by University of Florida police. He declined to identify the suspect because the matter is still under investigation.

University police are working with the State Attorney-General's Office and the Gainesville to determine who has jurisdiction over the case before anyone files criminal charges, Orlando said.

Details about the incident are available on the University's Web site.

Initially, recipients thought the message was racist because several racist videos were distributed during the presidential campaign indicating then-candidate Barack Obama is a monkey.

New theories have cropped up since, Orlando said. "I've heard some say this meant that George Bush had left the White House, or that it could have been a hacker letting people know he got in. We don't know what the person had in mind when he did this."

The message hit recipients' cell phones about 8:45 p.m. last night, Orlando said. Mobile Campus and Acceleration stopped transmission before it was complete, or it would have been sent to 60,000 people instead of 42,000, according to Orlando.

"We learned about this message within five minutes of its being sent out," David Liniado, CEO of Mobile Campus, told InternetNews.com. "We locked the system down soon after that." While Mobile Campus services 16 universities and colleges, the text message was limited to University of Florida students and employees, Liniado said.

The University of Florida's Orlando said the lockdown will continue until the university, Mobile Computing and Acceleration agree that it is safe to continue.

More to come?

Orlando declined to discuss how the suspect got into the system but said the investigation will continue.

Gregory Dunn, vice president, Americas, at database and mobile software vendor Sybase (NYSE: SY) told InternetNews.com that the hacker was probably an insider because the attack was detected so quickly. He said control of administration rights will help reduce the chances of this problem recurring.

Eric Skinner, chief technology officer at digital identity security vendor Entrust (NASDAQ: ENTU), told InternetNews.com that using strong authentication to control access to the system instead of just a password is critical.

"They probably have a Web-based front end so somebody logs in and types a message to be sent," he said. "Exactly the same thing happened at MacWorld when hackers broke into the live news stream and started mixing their messages in with legitimate messages."

Skinner was referring to the hacking of the MacWorld keynote live feed by members of 4chan.org. The hackers interrupted the feed and put out a message saying Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) founder Steve Jobs had just died, creating initial confusion and false reports on a number of sites and social network feeds.

While the motivation of the hacker who sent the text message over the University of Florida's alert system may be in doubt, the university's Orlando said the timing of his act was particularly bad.

"It's unfortunate that, on a special day like the inauguration [of incoming President Barack Obama], this could happen.