[FoRK] [IP] more on Rejected Harvard applicants say school's reaction to Web page "hack" excessive (fwd from dave@farber.net)

Eugen Leitl eugen at leitl.org
Fri Mar 11 10:09:50 PST 2005

------ Forwarded Message
From: Radu Cornea <ccradu at yahoo.com>
Date: Thu, 10 Mar 2005 16:25:29 -0800 (PST)
To: David Farber <dave at farber.net>
Subject: Re: [IP] Rejected Harvard applicants say school's reaction to Web
page "hack" excessive

Philip Greenspun has a nice post on his weblog about this:



usiness schools redefine hacking to "stuff that a 7-year-old could do"

When universities created business schools in the 20th Century traditional
academics decried the collapse of standards.  Instead of students studying
Literature, Art, History, and Science they would be going through the
motions of a scholar while occupying their minds with things that formerly
had been learned at a desk as an apprentice in a dreary Victorian counting
house.  Now in the 21st century the B-schools are degrading the term
"computer hacking".

Here are the facts:
    €     Harvard and a bunch of other B-schools with a collective IT budget
of maybe $50 million decided that writing Perl scripts was too hard so they
outsourced Web-based applications to a company called ApplyYourself.
    €      You'd think that the main advantage of a centralized service such
as ApplyYourself would be that a prospective student could fill out one
application and the information be sent simultaneously to many schools. 
However, this is not how it works.  Each school has a totally separate area
with ApplyYourself.
    €      All the smart young Americans have gone to law, business, and
medical school.  Companies don't like to hire old people (> 30 years) to
write computer programs because it saddens them to see old folks doing
something so degrading.  Thus ApplyYourself hired whoever was rejected by
professional schools to write up some Visual Basic scripts to process HBS
and other B-school applications.
    €      The ApplyYourself code had a bug such that editing the URL in the
"Address" or "Location" field of a Web browser window would result in an
applicant being able to find out his admissions status several weeks before
the official notification date.  This would be equivalent to a 7-year-old
being offered a URL of the form
http://philip.greenspun.com/images/20030817-utah-air-to-air/ and editing it
down to http://philip.greenspun.com/images/ to see what else of interest
might be on the server.
    €      Someone figured this out and posted the URL editing idea on the
BusinessWeek discussion forum, where all B-school hopefuls hang out and a
bunch of curious applicants tried it out.
    €      Now all the curious applicants, having edited their URLs, are
being denied admission to Harvard and, due to the fact that  universities
form cartels to fix tuition prices and other policies, presumably to the
other B-schools as well.

One interesting data point is that I once supervised a couple of MIT
students building an online system for submission of essays to be graded. 
MIT and a bunch of other schools have writing requirements.  Students submit
essays.  These are held in confidence from other students.  A subset of
users are authorized to grade essays and they are handed essays to
evaluate.  One server with a single database is programmed to handle
students and evaluators from many different schools and keep everything that
should be separate separated.  The students building this system had never
programmed in SQL before.  Nor had they ever written a Web script to glue
their SQL code to an HTML template.  Nor had they ever written HTML before. 
The entire project, which requires the same workflow and main features of
the ApplyYourself service, took them three months at 20 hours per week. 
Those kids are probably just graduating from med school now and preparing
for their careers in radiology...

In the 1960s the term "hacking" meant smart people developing useful and
innovative computer software.  In the 1990s the term meant smart evil people
developing and running programs to break into computer systems and gain
shell access to those systems.  Thanks to Harvard Business school the term
now means "people of average IQ poking around curiously by editing URLs on
public servers and seeing what comes back in the form of directory listings,

[Update:  People have been asking me whether I think the schools are
justified in rejecting the applicants who mucked with ApplyYourself's
URLs.  Had I been an MBA applicant and heard about this security hole I
probably would have tested it out.  Not so much out of curiosity as to
whether I'd gotten in but mostly to see if a school with nearly $30 billion
in assets really was so contemptuous of quality in IT and also to see just
how far the Web development industry has slid from its apex (probably 1994,
when 5 reformed Lisp hackers built Amazon.com out of C CGI scripts talking
to Oracle).  I did something similar when writing Philip and Alex's Guide to
Web Publishing.  I needed examples of Microsoft Active Server Page source
code.  There was at one time a bug in IIS/ASP that enabled anyone to view
the source code by appending "::$DATA" to any .asp URL.  Months after
Microsoft had released a patch for this bug, I surfed around and found
scripts at lots of prominent public servers, some of which scripts contained
database usernames and passwords.  I published the results in
http://philip.greenspun.com/panda/server-programming#ASP, which was turned
into a hardcopy textbook by Harcourt.  So it seems that my curiosity into
just how incompetent an institution with $billions in assets could be would
have led to me failing the ethics test, being convicted of hacking, and
being denied admission to a top business school.

Where would I personally draw the line?  A grad student at MIT figured out
that Fandango, the movie ticketing service, was passing the price of the
movie ticket as a hidden form variable in the HTML instead of doing the
pricing on the server at the final page.  He was able to edit the HTML form
in Emacs and submit it to Fandango and buy tickets for any price that he
felt was fair (being a grad student, his preferred price for tickets was
$0.25).  He invited me to try it out but it but I thought that either
Fandango or a movie theater would end up having to make up the difference
and it didn't feel right to take their money.  The HBS/ApplyYourself
situation falls into the "poking around with a browser" category where you
get to see stuff but the Web publisher hasn't been injured because they
still have the stuff on their server (one of the strange characteristics of
the digital age).  As progressively dumber programmers build progressively
more complex systems we will see more of this kind of attempt to paper over
coding mistakes with lawyers, sanctions, policies, and laws.  Hollywood and
the RIAA are usually the most successful at getting the government to do
their bidding.  Thus I predict that one day Disney will have a Web site
where you can buy access to any of their movies.  Because all of their
profits are being used to pay executive salaries this will have to be built
at extremely low cost.  Deficiencies in the softwrae will enable vast
numbers of Americans to download Bambi for free, their ISPs will be forced
to rat them out, and they will all get to see Martha's Stewart's cell in
West Virginia first hand...]

# Posted by Philip Greenspun on 3/8/05; 4:19:25 PM - Comments [32] Trackback

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