Police: University of Michigan students received racist, threatening emails

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Wednesday, February 8, 2017

ANN ARBOR, Mich. (WLS) -- Police are investigating after several University of Michigan students received threatening emails.

The Michigan Daily reported the emails contained racist and anti-Semitic messages along with threats of violence.

The emails were sent Tuesday night to computer science and engineering students and appear to be under the name of a professor who has raised concerns about the integrity of the voting system in some states.

J. Alex Halderman denies sending the messages and the school doesn't believe Halderman's email was hacked. Instead, spokesman Rick Fitzgerald said Wednesday that Halderman and the students are victims of "spoofing" or forged emails.

Fitzgerald says campus police are investigating. Halderman calls the emails "contemptible."

The emails had subject lines such as "African American Student Diversity" and "Jewish Student Diversity." Two messages included the phrase "Heil Trump."

Halderman, a computer science professor, urged a recount of presidential election results in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania to ensure that a cyberattack hadn't manipulated totals.

The University of Michigan issued a statement on their website:

February 8, 2017

The university was alerted about 10:30 p.m. Tuesday of several racist and anti-Semitic emails sent to email groups within the College of Engineering.

The University of Michigan Police Department and the FBI are conducting a joint criminal investigation into the incident. The university's Information Assurance group also is involved in the investigation.

The U-M Division of Public Safety and Security has increased patrols in the North Campus area where the College of Engineering is located.

The content of the emails has been condemned by the university in general and by President Mark Schlissel specifically.

At this point, it has been determined that the emails were forged or "spoofed."

Email "spoofing" is the forgery of an email header so that the message appears to have originated from someone or somewhere other than the actual source.

This is different from hacking, which involves a cyber attacker taking over an individual's account by circumventing security systems.

In this case, no one has circumvented any IT security protocols at U-M.

Statement from Engineering Professor J. Alex Halderman

One of the emails was made to appear as if it were sent by Engineering Professor J. Alex Halderman, an election cyber security expert. Here is some of what he had to say:

"This evening many EECS undergrads received emails with racist and antisemitic content that appeared to be addressed from me or from my Ph.D. student Matt Bernhard.

"These messages were spoofed. Matt and I did not send them, and we don't know who did. As I teach in my computer security classes, it takes very little technical sophistication to forge the sender's address in an email."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.