Probe into racist messages at UMass Amherst coming up dry

  • The University of Massachusetts Amherst (UMass) campus FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 12/13/2021 4:12:12 PM
Modified: 12/13/2021 4:11:36 PM

AMHERST — More than two months of investigation into racist messages sent to members of Black student organizations at the University of Massachusetts has yet to identify the source of the emails, according to a recent email sent to the campus community.

“We want to assure you that, despite the frustrations encountered thus far, this investigation remains one of the highest priorities for the campus, and as we have new information, we will provide additional updates,” wrote Christopher Misra, vice chancellor for information services and chief information officer, and Nefertiti Walker, vice chancellor for diversity, equity and inclusion, in the Dec. 9 email.

In September, Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy announced that Stroz Friedberg Digital Forensics of New York, a national cybersecurity company, would assist with the investigation into what he described as “contemptible and cowardly” incidents.

The racist incidents also included the yelling of an epithet at Black students by a passing driver.

“We will not be intimidated by the hateful acts of craven individuals who hide in anonymity,” Subbaswamy wrote. “We stand with our students who have been victimized, and we will continually strive for a more equitable community grounded in the principles of dignity and respect.”

Since that time, Stroz Friedberg investigators have been working closely with UMass Police, Information Technology and other campus entities, Misra and Walker wrote, assessing the hateful targeting through multiple sources, including dark websites, and leveraging custom tools to try to pinpoint the origin of the emails.

“The process is painstaking and time consuming, and to date no perpetrator has been identified,” the administrators wrote, adding that it is not uncommon for an exhaustive investigation to come up dry. “The potential challenges investigators cite are many, including the numerous free email accounts offered by providers, privacy rules and encryption software.”

UMass spokesman Edward Blaguszewski wrote in an email that the company has been paid $9,821.25 so far, and that the work is being done under a two-year service agreement for providing IT forensics services.

The university is pledging to continue working closely with Stroz Friedberg to follow up on any data or leads if and when they are discovered.

As a result of the incidents, UMass is enhancing student privacy and limiting outside access to student email by adjusting the online People Finder directory. UMass is also working with email providers to enhance email services and to improve security for individuals and student organizations that use the umass.edu domain, and other domains managed by campus IT.

Anyone with information about the incidents can contact UMass Police and use its online anonymous form.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.

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