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July 31, 2002

Princeton's admission office accesses Yale website without authorization
FBI investigation ensues

By Argelio Dumenigo

The FBI and an independent investigator hired by Princeton University are probing into charges that Princeton admission officials gained unauthorized access to Yale’s admission website on at least 14 occasions in April by using the personal information — including social security numbers – of eight students who had applied to both schools.

Associate Dean and Director of Admission Stephen LeMenager, who admitted to Yale’s undergraduate newspaper that he and office colleagues had accessed Yale’s admission website in order to test its security, has been placed on paid administrative leave pending the outcome of the university’s investigation, according to university officials.

"It was really an innocent way for us to check out the security," LeMenager told the Yale Daily News in a story that appeared on its website on July 25. "That was our main concern of having an online notification system, that it would be susceptible to people who had that information — parents, guidance counselors, and admissions officers at other schools."

LeMenager has been a university staff member since 1983, and President Tilghman described him as a "long-time and respected member" of the admission office staff. He is the second-highest ranking administrator of the 30-member admission office. LeMenager did not respond to a phone request for an interview. According to media reports, he has retained one of New Jersey’s top criminal defense lawyers, Brian Neary, a Rutgers-Newark Law professor who has defended rappers, professional athletes, and other high profile clients. Neary did not return calls from PAW.

Another North Jersey attorney was selected to head the university’s internal investigation. William Maderer, a partner in the Newark law firm of Saiber, Schlesinger, Satz, & Goldstein, arrived on campus July 26 to begin his probe. Princeton General Counsel Peter McDonough picked Maderer because neither he nor his firm had any prior ties to the university, said Princeton spokeswoman Marilyn Marks.

Yale officials learned of the breaches to its online admissions notification system at a May meeting of Ivy League admissions officers, where LeMenager spoke about accessing the Yale website. His comments were reported to Yale officials, which led to an investigation, said Yale spokeswoman Helaine Klasky.

After the internal investigation uncovered 18 hits to the Yale admission site from Princeton University computers, Yale turned the information over to federal and Connecticut law enforcement officials, who continue to investigate. An FBI spokeswoman would not comment on its investigation.

Princeton administrators learned of the unauthorized access when Yale President Richard Levin called President Tilghman on the evening of July 24 to tell her of the breaches and that the Yale student newspaper had broken the story and was to run it the following day.

Three of the hits that came from Princeton were eventually discovered to be current university students checking on a sibling’s admission status at Yale, and another was a prospective student visiting Princeton who had applied to both schools, according to Marks.

In a letter sent to Princeton students, faculty, and staff on July 29, President Tilghman said the university was attempting to contact the applicants whose information was used to apologize "for this failure to properly respect their privacy."

"Basic ethical principles of privacy and confidentiality are at stake here. We teach these principles and we hold our students, faculty, and staff to them. Violations of these principles therefore must not, and will not, be tolerated," wrote Tilghman. "I deeply regret the enormous strain that these events have caused, first and foremost, to the students whose rights were violated...We will move quickly to bring the investigation to a just conclusion, and we will then take appropriate actions to deal with infractions that have occurred and to try to prevent any recurrence of similar actions in the future."

The national and international media scrutiny the situation has garnered intensified when the Washington Post reported on July 27 that President George W. Bush’s niece, Lauren Bush, a senior in Houston, was among the students whose admissions information was accessed on the Yale site.

The newspaper, citing a confidential Yale report, also reported that Ara Parseghian, the grandson and namesake of the celebrated Notre Dame football coach, was another applicant whose records were viewed. According to the Post, admission office computers were used to access Bush’s file four times in an afternoon and Parseghian’s was entered three times within a few hours. Neither Princeton nor Yale officials would verify the newspaper’s report.

As the investigations continue, admission officers and legal experts in the fields of privacy and the Internet have been sought out around the country to comment on a unique, perhaps even a first of its kind, situation that could land two of the country’s most prestigious universities in courts of law. Whether they will be civil or criminal courts depends on what the investigations uncover, according to legal scholars quoted in the media. If federal laws were violated, Princeton could lose some or all of the limited government funding it receives, some said.

There is also the possibility that students could sue the schools, said Jonathan Zittrian, the codirector at Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society. But he stressed that he is "not ready to start a witch hunt" since all the facts in the case have not been released.

"I would not want to rush to judgment. This is usually a thing handled between institutions and a few heads roll. I don’t see Yale suing Princeton," said Zittrian, a Yale alumnus. "It makes for a great story, though. It seems beyond belief that this could happen."

Leslie Reis, director of the John Marshall Law School’s Center for Information Technology and Privacy Law in Chicago, was also surprised when she learned of the situation.

"At a time when there is a heightened awareness of the privacy implications in the use of student records post-9/11, you’d think that it would be at the forefront of the mind of a school administrator at a prestigious university," said Reis.

Barmak Nassirian, an official with the 9,000-member American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, questioned whether a similar situation between two less prestigious universities would have captured as much media attention. He also said that if it were two lesser schools, which might be dealing with dwindling enrollment and weak recruitment, he would have been more inclined to suspect "institutional shenanigans."

"To say that this is a mark of competition run amok is silly in its face," said Nassirian, who also disagreed with the mainstream media’s describing the incident as hacking. "This is not a symptom of corruption or malfeasance. It’s faulty judgment. People do make faulty judgments. Sometimes your hands move faster than your mind."

Email PAW at paw@princeton.edu

Link to email message from President Shirley Tilghman regarding the inquiry

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