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Computers crash; cause still unclear

More than 1,000 computers across campus crashed at the same time Monday night in a bizarre incident that has computer experts from Princeton to Chicago to Seattle scratching their heads.

The problem affected computers that were on at 10:30 p.m. Monday using either Windows NT or Windows 95. Although no permanent damage was believed to have been done to any machine, the crashes were cause for consternation among students trying to write papers and faculty who were faced with a sea of blue screens when they returned to work yesterday morning.

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The incident was also somewhat alarming for the University's Computing and Information Technology office, which was at a loss for an explanation yesterday.

"We have not yet found anyone to whom this has happened before," said Jacqueline Brown, director of information services. Brown said she was sure that Princeton had never experienced such widespread crashes.

Midwest connection

In an interesting twist, however, the University of Chicago reported yesterday that their campus experienced the exact same problem at almost the same time.

Kay Sandacz, a network specialist for Chicago, said the school's computer system had been "under network attack" since 10 p.m. Eastern time Monday. According to Sandacz, this means the glitch came through the Internet, and she speculated that it had come from outside of the University of Chicago.

"My supposition is that there was intent," Sandacz said, explaining that she felt someone had deliberately caused the crash, though she was not optimistic that the culprit would ever be found.

Sandacz said Microsoft has known for some time that their system has vulnerabilities that can be exploited by hackers to cause crashes.

'A fix'

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"Microsoft has had a fix for this for three months now," Sandacz said, adding that the company's Website includes a patch that students can download. Yesterday, engineers from both Microsoft and Princeton's CIT office were trying to find out exactly what caused the crashes here, but CIT was not ready to disclose any theories.

"At this point, we have no evidence either way – positive or negative – that it is a hacker," Brown said.

Lee Varian, director of systems and networking for CIT, estimated that there are 1,200 machines on campus running Windows NT and several hundred more that run Windows 95. Not every computer running those programs, however, was affected.

Brown said computers that crashed did not sustain any losses unless their users were doing work that had not been saved. "The remedy's very simple," Brown said. "You do a cold boot of the machine and it comes back."

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Just the same, both Brown and Varian said that CIT is very much interested in finding out the cause of the crash.

"I would love to tell you what happened, but we just don't know yet," Brown said.

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