Flaw in Campus Directory Exposes ID Numbers of Students, Staff, Faculty, Alumni

Editors’ Note: The following story was scheduled to appear in print and online on Friday, September 29. On September 22, The Quest alerted IT in good faith that the article would go to print the following week to give the department time to fix the massive security vulnerabilities detailed within. Forty minutes ago, IT sent an email to all Reed community members minimizing the seriousness of those vulnerabilities in a seeming attempt to get ahead of the Quest’s coverage. The following is that coverage, as it will appear in print tomorrow. More coverage to follow live as we learn more. 

Read all of our most-updated coverage here.

Investigative reporting by the Quest confirmed that a vulnerability allowed any IRIS user and in some cases the general public, to access ID numbers and clone ID cards of any Reed community member.

By Declan Bradley

After first being alerted to the existence of a critical vulnerability in the IRIS system by a student who wished to remain anonymous, Quest reporters were able to independently confirm that the college’s “campus directory” — which is accessible to all students — had unintentionally exposed the Reed ID numbers of all students, staff, and faculty.

Furthermore, while the original vulnerability has now been closed, the Quest has reason to believe that one or more users retained locally saved copies of a spreadsheet that allows them to continue to obtain ID numbers for any user, leaving students, staff, and faculty continuously vulnerable to impersonation. Student sources have also asserted the existence of further vulnerabilities in the college’s harassment reporting system which, while unconfirmed, potentially exposed ID numbers for alumni in addition to current students, staff, and faculty.

Investigative reporting by the Quest also confirmed that the properties of Reed College ID cards are based directly on the owner’s ID number. Such magnetic swipe cards do little more than encode simple information — a line or two of text — on a physical object. In the case of Reed ID cards, that information seems to be a simple text file containing the user’s ID number followed by their name. Combined with the ease of obtaining exposed ID numbers, this means that any user could clone the ID card of any other user using a simple magnetic read/write device — standard models of which connect to a laptop through USB and cost about $90 from Amazon. 

Using such cloned ID cards, users could then spend board points, swipe through locked doors (including those meant to be closed to students), or otherwise impersonate the target to any automated system at Reed that identifies community members by their ID cards.

This raised concerns for some reporters about the security of the Reed Research Reactor, which the Quest was able to confirm uses swipe cards as at least one of its security steps. While Reactor Operators are forbidden to reveal the security protocols of the reactor control room, one student who underwent reactor training confirmed anonymously that there are “a few more steps” necessary to gain access to the reactor than simply presenting a standard swipe card, which means the reactor is at least somewhat secured against this vulnerability.

While the Quest only learned of the vulnerability during the first week of September, the anonymous source claimed it had been known by “multiple people in Reed CS [computer science]” since at least early 2023. 

In an email to the Quest, Reed Cybersecurity Architect Payam Damghani confirmed that the college was first alerted to the issue by a student worker in IT in May 2023, which the Quest has independently confirmed. Despite this, the vulnerability remained open through the beginning of September 2023, four months later, and reporters did not observe a patch to the IRIS system until September 16 — eleven days after the IT department was contacted by the Quest on September 5.

The original source claimed that students had made “several” fruitless attempts to alert the college to the seriousness of the issue, although the Quest has been unable to confirm this beyond the original May report. The source said that they had chosen to come to the Quest with this information at least partially because “it seemed like the only way to get any of this fixed.” “I know it had been brought up internally previously but nothing seemed to have been done about it,” the source said, “it didn’t seem like they would have any motivation to fix it without external pressure.”

The Quest first formally alerted Mr. Damghani and Information and Security Officer Valerie Moreno to the existence of the vulnerability on the afternoon of September 5. When neither Mr. Damghani nor Ms. Moreno responded by noon on September 8, a Quest reporter, considering it an urgent issue, approached Director of Instructional Technology Services Trina Marmarelli — a professional in a different division of IT who is not involved in systems security — in her office. The Quest reporter asked if the IT department had received the alert. Ms. Marmarelli did not seem previously aware of the details of the case but promised to pass along the request. The Quest received a response from Mr. Damghani soon after.

Anonymous sources within IT say that, since that date, the existence of the vulnerability  — and students’ knowledge of it — has been kept secret even from many Reed IT professionals. At an all-staff meeting of IT on September 13, only a brief mention of IRIS maintenance was made, and the flaw was alluded to, “only in the vaguest possible terms.” 

Director of Technology Infrastructure Services Gabe Leavitt, meanwhile, said in an email to the Quest on September 8 that he was not told of the paper’s attempt to notify the department until that afternoon, three days after it was originally sent.

The Quest was initially hesitant to publish information that would make the vulnerability easier to replicate, and on September 12 Mr. Damghani suggested that a 90-day embargo on the story would be “industry standard.” However, the shutdown of the IRIS system for “maintenance” between September 16 and 17 appeared to patch the most public-facing parts of the vulnerability, which sources from both within and without Reed IT have assured the Quest are no longer functional. 

On the afternoon of September 22, a lawyer with the Student Press Law Center assured the Quest that coverage of the vulnerability would likely be protected, and that reporters may even have been “too responsible” in delaying their story to give the IT department time to fix the issue.

Prior to the patch, users were identified in the IRIS database by an 8-digit number known as a PIDM. Such PIDMs were stored openly in the URL strings for each user’s page — obtaining one was as simple as searching for that user, clicking on their name, and then copying their PIDM from the address bar in any browser. (URLs followed the format: “https://iris.reed.edu/directory/campus/[PIDM]”) 

This was intentional. In an email to the Quest, Mr. Damghani said that PIDMs “were originally intended by Reed IT to be a publicly-visible unique user identifier specifically for use by web applications.”

However, students discovered that PIDMs were calculated by simply taking a user’s Reed ID number and adding a fixed constant. For example, if a student’s ID number was 20001000, their PIDM would be 20002000 (20001000 + 1000). While the actual fixed offset was not 1000, and the Quest will withhold the true value, the value seemed to be consistent across all Reed community members. 

While reporters were careful not to access sensitive data themselves, the Quest was able to independently confirm that the fixed offset method correctly produced ID numbers to a high rate of accuracy across all students, staff, and faculty, something not even the original source had been able to confirm at scale. This meant that any student, after calculating the difference between their own ID number and PIDM with a simple phone calculator, could extrapolate the ID number of any other student, faculty, or staff member, up to and including the level of the president. 

“Oh, yeah, I have Audrey Bilger’s ID,” said one student, casually, while speaking with a Quest reporter.

Even more significantly, further vulnerabilities in the autocomplete function of the IRIS database allowed any user to obtain a spreadsheet of all Reed community members containing each person’s name, PIDM number, and position at the college (job title, status as a student, etc.) 

For the more technical reader, the autocomplete function sent whatever input the user typed to a remote database containing all possible search results and then returned the matching rows. However, the URL format of the search function allowed anyone with basic programming knowledge to simply send the star character (*) — which in computer science stands for “everything” — as an input. Any user could therefore simply request results matching “everything,” and the system would promptly dispense the entire database as a pre-formatted JSON or CSV table.

Critically, these files of all PIDM data could then be easily downloaded by the user and saved to their computer. While this access has now been cut off, the Quest has been and will be, unable to confirm how many users accessed this data or currently retain local copies of it.

A screenshot of the system dispensing identity data for college president Audrey Bilger and the three other people at Reed named Audrey, provided to the Quest by a student source. The PIDMs have been removed by the Quest to protect privacy but were easily accessible to the source and any other IRIS user.

The Quest contacted IT on September 25 to ask how many copies of the data were downloaded during the at least four months it was available, and if the department had any way to ascertain that number. Mr. Damghani responded, “We are investigating potential access to the affected systems. We currently do not have any conclusive information that would indicate widespread access to or abuse of the affected systems that would be a violation of the college’s Computer User Agreement.”

While the IRIS system appears to have been overhauled, student, staff, and faculty ID cards are physical, non-connected objects that can’t be altered remotely. That means that the only way to completely protect Reed ID cards from the risk posed by the ID spreadsheet is to recall them and physically run each one through a read/write machine. This would also likely require the college to reset all student, staff, and faculty ID numbers to new — ideally random — values. 

When the Quest asked IT if the college plans to carry out such a mass rewrite of ID cards, and when, Mr. Damghani repeated his exact words that the department does not “have any conclusive information” that would suggest “widespread access” to the system, and added that, “[IT is] working with our vendor to implement ISO codes for our card access system which would in turn address the issue of the unique identifier.”

Meanwhile, since the overhaul was implemented over the weekend of the 16th, student sources have continued to test the vulnerabilities of the system. One, who would only speak on the condition of anonymity, claimed to have identified a further flaw in the college’s harassment reporting form that simply printed the raw Reed ID numbers of all students, faculty, staff, and alumni — both making the step of converting between PIDMs and IDs unnecessary and raising the number of affected individuals into the thousands. 

Critically, this flaw also bypassed the ‘directory visibility’ property, meaning that even community members who had opted out of the campus directory were still at risk. The Quest alerted IT to this new flaw on September 25, but will not print the details of the vulnerability, even though it had been fixed by the time the paper went to print on Wednesday night. 

Further such flaws, which had not been fixed at the time of publication, continue to expose PIDM numbers of either students or Reed employees through at least three different avenues — all of which the Quest alerted IT to on the 25th. One of these also overrides the ‘directory visibility’ property.

While it is important to note that, since the September 16 update, these vulnerabilities only return ten rows of data at a time, there is nothing to stop users from simply making repeated requests until all of the data is eventually returned. 

The Quest has not been able to independently confirm these vulnerabilities, but reporters have seen screenshots that seem to demonstrate their existence. If real, these gaps in security remained open after the weekend overhaul of IRIS — and there is no way for individual users to protect themselves or their information.

This is a developing story and the Quest will continue to follow it in the coming hours.

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Read the Email IT Sent to Reed Community Members – Quest.
2 months ago

[…] The following email was sent after the Quest alerted the IT department that our coverage of this issue would be published on Friday, September 29. That coverage is now live on our website. […]


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