Thieves cash in on chip gold rush

February 9, 1996

Thieves are using the freedom of movement found on campuses worldwide to break into computers and steal memory chips because they can be worth more than their weight in gold.

The rash of computer chip thefts is to be discussed at next month's international conference of the Association of University Chief Security Officers.

British campuses are not alone in losing terabits of data storage chips - with losses reported from as far afield as Saskatchewan and Johannesburg.

"There is no feeling of collective panic, yet, but there is a feeling of apprehension because chip theft is spreading," said Peter Kemp of Glasgow University, executive member of the Universities and Colleges Information Systems Association (UCISA).

Glasgow has not been badly hit, so far. Universities in the English Midlands, however, have suffered repeatedly from RAM raiders and SIMM stealers, with some buildings burgled twice in one night.

"It is not necessarily a problem on the campuses you might expect, it is not necessarily on city campuses," said Dr Kemp.

His statement followed a meeting last month with other association executives to discuss the problem.

The thieves take chances. At Nottingham Trent University they hid on the fourth floor of a building all night and waited until the ground floor alarms were switched off in the morning before departing with their pockets full of silicon - or "black dust" as it is known on the black market. The chips they took were worth Pounds 10,000 but the damage they did to the hardware they left behind cost Pounds 70,000.

Ian Griffiths, head of computer services at Trent said:"We have put changes in place to avoid massive losses of chips.

"We have a number of open access research rooms and the best method we have found to protect those machines is to have a number of students present, which means we have to make sure that the right number of rooms are open to match demand.

"It only takes a couple of minutes to steal one chip but nobody is going to do just one machine - they'll go for a room with 20 machines so they'll need half an hour."

Alarms built into the computers have been linked to a central security office so that machines which are moved or opened alert staff automatically.

Oxford University is spending Pounds 500,000 to increase campus security, has quadrupled the number of security personnel and has this month appointed its first crime prevention officer.

Oxford's marshal, Ted Roberts said: "Computer crime is causing concern but it is not serious. My view is that, in the long term, the responsibility lies with the manufacturers to put security coding on each individual removable item of a computer.

"In the short term we must make it as hard as possible for people to steal those items."

Some security devices are deceptively useless. Cheap harnesses to bolt computer cases to desks do not prevent thieves sliding modules out from the back maintenance slots.

Apart from the setbacks to teaching and research caused by the loss of chips, the impact of new security measures has to be assessed carefully.

"We don't want to make our university into Fort Knox," said Steve Young, head of computing at Cambridge.

"We work long hours and we are used to freedom of movement. Better security will require us to make compromises."

Computer magazines carry adverts from companies which want to buy used chips.

One, The Memory Dump, weeds out dubious sellers by only buying from organisations and only accepting chips sent in registered packets which carry the organisation's name.

They will only make payment by cheque and only make it payable to the sending organisation. The same company has a sister, Mr Memory, which sells new, date-stamped chips imported from the United States. Thirty pin 4 Mb SIMMS cost Pounds 89, 72 pin 32 Mb SIMMS cost Pounds 639 and 168 pin 64 Mb DIMMS cost Pounds 1,529 each.

* The conference of the Association of University Chief Security Officers will be held at Southampton University from March 1922.

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