TOO LITTLE, TOO LATE?

TOO LITTLE, TOO LATE?

Gautam S. MengleUpdated: Sunday, June 23, 2024, 11:02 AM IST
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University Grants Commission |

The revelation about the University Grants Commission (UGC) National Eligibility Test (NET) being leaked and sold on the dark web has opened a can of worms that has the authorities concerned. A cursory sweep of the dark web by FPJ threw up a thriving ecosystem of leaked question papers with multiple beneficiaries but only one victim - the students.

On June 19, the Ministry of Education announced that the NET would have to be held again as its ‘integrity might have been compromised’. The very next day, the Central Bureau of Investigation registered an FIR in connection with the alleged leak and sale of the NET question paper on the dark web. The FIR was based on a letter to the CBI signed by K Sanjay Murthy, Secretary, Ministry of Education.

“On 19th  June 2024, the UGC received certain inputs from the National Cyber Crime Threat Analysis Unit of the Indian Cyber Crime Coordination Centre (I4C) under the Ministry of Home Affairs on the Examination. These inputs prima facie indicate that the integrity of the aforesaid examination may have been compromised,” the letter states.

CBI Sources said that the exam was cancelled and the investigation sought after the I4C, in its preliminary inquiry, confirmed that the paper offered for sale online.

A senior cybersecurity source working with the central government said that while efforts to trace the exact leak were still underway, the question paper was observed to have been put up on several dark web discussion forums, which serve as illegal marketplaces for contraband.

“From there, it made its way to Telegram and once that happened, it was a free for all. Just like the dark web, Telegram has all sorts of players, from those looking to make a profit to those simply trying to cause disruption. As a result, there were Telegram channels offering the bonafide question paper for a price, those offering it for free and those making big bucks by offering a bogus question paper,” the source said.

FPJ found a total of seven Telegram channels still operational, where the question paper had been offered for sale. Of these, a few were open channels, but most of them were just entry-points for a second channel, where entry was approved by the administrator. These channels had also disabled taking screenshots under Telegrams privacy settings. The oldest channel offering the papers for sale, with all privacy settings and precautions set to the max, was established in February this year.

Apart from UGC NET, there were other channels offering questions papers of other government exams like the NEET for sale, asking customers to ‘book their slots’ beforehand so that they could avail of the question paper as soon as it was obtained.

“Telegram has become a mode of preference for illicit activities because of the features it offers. There is a high amount of privacy, one can use it across different devices using the same number and download vast quantities of data. Entire software can be pirated and uploaded to Telegram. But one must also remember that many of these Telegram channels can be frauds looking to make a quick buck, because these same features let fraudsters discard one account and make another as per their need,” said Additional Director General of Police Brijesh Singh, Principal Secretary to the Maharashtra Chief Minister’s Office.

Since news of the leak, cybercrime investigation agencies in several states across India have been digging into the scope of the racket, and finding multiple instances of question papers being offered on the dark web, with payment being accepted in cryptocurrency. The veracity of these claims is still being verified.

“What is concerning is that forget the dark web, there are students starting discussion threads on forums on the open web, asking how they can access the dark web to buy the question papers,” said a Mumbai based officer.

Cybercrime investigator Ritesh Bhatia also raised another pertinent point.

“Has the UGC started the process of finding out how the question paper made its way to the dark web? Has there been an internal audit? Will they make a responsible disclosure as to whether there was insider involvement, a leak in the system or an external party at work? With data protection and cybersecurity being the hot topics, the UGC has the perfect opportunity to be the first government institution to walk to talk. But will they?” asked Bhatia

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