Gone Phishin’

Oxford University apparently shut down access to Google Docs in response to a rise in phishing activity:

“In the schemes, attackers, often pretending to be from Oxford, send out Google Doc forms that ask users to enter their personal e-mail passwords. Students and faculty members deceived by the form then freely type in that information, unwittingly lending their account to the attacker.”

Oxford was allegedly frustrated that Google had been “inactive” in addressing the problem. Interestingly, the administration’s action was not interpreted as a last-ditch PSA by some:

“One user, who was among a number of readers who shared their negative reactions in the blog’s comments, said he was disappointed by Oxford’s response to the issue.

‘It seemed like a point score against Google rather than a serious attempt to improve security,’ the reader said.”

So what have we learned here?

  • Universities are increasingly relying on online assets from third parties such as Google.
  • These assets don’t come with robust customer service that usually are a feature of pay assets and/or in-house custom ones.
  • One way to gain the attention of a distracted student populace is to cut off access to these assets.
  • This act inadvertently highlights the significance of network ownership in the brave new online world, and calls to mind certain authoritarian social dynamics that don’t fit well with the open/democratic/free online frame, such as parent/child or dealer/junkie.
  • One can imagine a future where universities freeze access to online assets in order to remind students of a range of messages it wants to disseminate, such as important financial aid deadlines or that the big game is on Saturday at Soldier’s Field.
  • While this act was effective in terms of public awareness, no one likes their powerlessness to be pointed out to them.
  • In the end, that user was correct in pointing out that the outage didn’t correct the problem.
  • The commercial realities of the marketplace appear to be a new regular feature in the classroom that was, once upon a time, isolated from such concerns. Did it start with Channel one?  the decimation of government education dollars? The calls to privatize public education?  or the natural administrator urge to cut costs?  And where will it go?  It used to be that the sausage-making apparatus was kept out of the classroom. Maybe it’s not a bad thing to introduce students to the economic realities of the day in a controlled setting, and use these moments to explain why they are, for example, watching the Pizza Hut Totally Blazin’ history of the Constitution With Extra Cheese.
  • Which suggests that the university was also powerless in terms of getting Google to respond to their concerns.  There is a lot of junk to go around, such as free assets and the allure of MOOCs and squeezing maximum value out of every educational dollar.
  • All hail Google, our new overlord.  In grad school ten years ago we used to joke that it didn’t matter what we study since we would all be working for Sony in due course.  How quaint that seems now.