OIT identifies senders of joke housing email, student who claimed credit for email also pranked by senders
The Office of Information Technology has identified the individuals who sent the prank housing email on April 1 falsely claiming that room draw times would be reassigned, according to University Spokesperson Martin Mbugua. OIT has forwarded the case to the Office of the Dean of Undergraduate Students, which will review OIT’s findings and decide upon any possible disciplinary consequences in a confidential process.
The OIT investigation was launched on April 1, likely after Housing Services notified OIT about the email, according to OIT Vice President Jay Dominick.
“We’ve provided all the information that we’ve been asked to the Dean of Students,” Dominick said. One piece of information OIT gave to ODUS was the perpetrators' netIDs. “What we would’ve done in a case like this is, we would have combed through any log files that we had to see if we had any relevant information that would point us back to a netID,” Dominick explained.
According to Dominick, the prank email was sent to 1,000 to 2,000 recipients. The exact number of recipients is undetermined. “That would indicate to me that it wasn’t the whole student body, but I don’t know who it was specifically grouped to,” explained Dominick. “That would be a lot of information for us to try to cull through.”
The investigation team, led by OIT Senior Policy Advisor Rita Saltz, consisted of approximately three or four people, according to Dominick. While OIT has identified the source of the email and knows that an external mailing host was used to send it, OIT does not know how the senders compiled a list of student emails, said Dominick.
In addition, the actual perpetrators of the prank sent an email in the name of Will Harrel ’13, who posted a joke Facebook status on April 1 claiming that he had sent the fake housing email. The senders of the prank housing email sent an email in Harrel’s name to the approximately 100 Princeton students who had liked Harrel’s status. This email, which appeared to come from Harrel’s account and was sent on April 1 at around 11 p.m., thanked recipients for their support and asked them to reply to Harrel’s actual email account thanking him for the prank.
“My friends mostly said, ‘What is this?’ And then a few people who I didn’t know actually replied with words of thanks,” Harrel said. Once Harrel received about a dozen replies, he realized that someone, whom he suspected to be the original pranksters, had used a program — which could forward replies to his inbox — to send an email in his name.
“The email was not sent from my account. I wasn’t hacked. It was just an email spoof where they pretend it was sent from my account,” Harrel explained.
Harrel then emailed OIT late on the night on April 1 asking if OIT could determine who had been emailed in his name. “I emphasized that I thought it was a clever prank and that I didn’t want them to get in trouble for it,” Harrel said. “My only hope was just to clear up that I didn’t actually send the email.”
Over the next three days, Harrel was updated about the status of the OIT investigation on the housing email, including when OIT had identified the pranksters. On the afternoon of April 3, Harrel received an email from OIT informing him that OIT had asked the pranksters to give him the list of people who received the second prank email.
The pranksters met with Harrel on the same day and provided him with the contacts. Recalling the reason that the pranksters gave for sending out the email in his name, he said, “They briefly explained it, but I understood their intentions, which was, given that I had pulled a meta-prank on their prank, they wanted to take it another level, and I thought it was very admirable.”
According to Harrel, the pranksters explained to him that they had written a script to compile the names of Princeton students who had liked his Facebook status and matched them up with Princeton email addresses.
Speculating about how the pranksters had compiled email addresses for the fake Housing Services email, Harrel said, “You can just go on College Facebook, search 'undergrads' and then write a really simple script.”
After meeting with the pranksters, Harrel sent an email out to all the contacts clarifying that he had not actually written the email asking for their thanks and that the original pranksters had done so.
Harrel declined to reveal the pranksters’ identity, although he did confirm that they are undergraduate students.
“Essentially they wanted to remain anonymous because they wanted the prank to stand for itself and they didn’t want it to be defined by who may have done it,” Harrel said. “In that way, it can just remain a mysterious part of Princeton lore rather than just ‘these people did this.’ I thought it was a very well-executed, clever and fun prank and, if they want to remain anonymous, I don’t see any reason not to oblige to them.”
Harrel also emailed ODUS staff explaining that he didn’t “think anything ill of what [the pranksters] did” to him, he said.