Fearing the loss of his scholarship, a Vietnamese Asean scholar at the Singapore Management University (SMU) broke into his professor’s account and changed his grades along with those of nine fellow students.
When Tran Gia Hung was confronted about his actions, the 22-year-old first-year student denied any wrongdoing and even tried to pin the blame on others, including one of the students whose grades he had lowered.
At the State Courts on Wednesday (8 November), Tran was jailed four months after admitting to 10 counts of performing access, and unauthorised modifications, to computer material, and one count of intentionally obstructing the course of justice. Another 28 similar charges were taken into consideration during his sentencing.
Tran is currently suspended from SMU, where he is a Business Management student. He was in his second semester at the school when he committed the offences. As an Asean scholar, Tran’s school fees are fully paid for and he receives a yearly allowance.
Multiple attempts to guess password
According to the statement of facts, Tran had targetted the e-Learn account of Dr Rajah Kumar, a professor from SMU’s Lee Kong Chian School of Business. The school’s e-Learn system provides support to staff and students for their academic requirements. Tran was able to get a rough sense of Dr Kumar’s account password from observing the latter typing it in during class.
On eight occasions between March and April 2016, Tran attempted to log into Dr Kumar’s e-Learn account and eventually succeeded. He used the account to gain access to projects and reports from past-year students to help in his own assignment for Dr Kumar’s course. Tran also improved his grades for the Technology and World Change module that he was taking.
In total, he made 30 unauthorised amendments to 10 students’ grades – including his own – across two modules. Apart from Tran, seven students had their grades improved while the grades for two students were downgraded. He changed the grades of one student, Yudi Alvin, from B- to C- and finally to a D+.
Sometime between 10am and 11pm on 25 April 2016, Dr Kumar uploaded his students’ grades for two modules – Technology and World Change and Business Government and Society – into the e-Learn system while in SMU’s administration office. The students were not permitted to see their grades at that point.
At 10pm, when Dr Kumar was planning to release his students’ results, he noticed that some of the grades differed from those he had uploaded earlier. He cross-checked the grades in the system against his results spreadsheet and found that someone had changed the grades in the system without his permission.
The professor reported the issue to SMU, which then conducted an internal investigation and found that there had been multiple log-in attempts linked to IP and MAC addresses assigned to the MacBook of a student e-Learn account – ghtran.2015 – that belonged to Tran.
Three days later, Tran was called to SMU for an interview where he was asked about the unauthorised access and modification of grades. Tran “adamantly denied accessing (Dr Kumar’s) account” and alleged that he had been framed, said Deputy Public Prosecutor (DPP) Nicholas Khoo.
Deciding to give Tran a second chance to come clean, SMU did not report the matter to the police. The school told Tran to think about the matter and provide an explanation to them by 12pm the next day.
Following the interview, Tran sent an e-mail to SMU repeating his claims of innocence. He said he had been framed by a “tech savvy” person and referred to a previous case of hacking at SMU committed by Russian student Georgy Kotsaga, who was jailed two months in February for deleting 19 exam scripts from a professor’s account. SMU then lodged a police report on 4 May 2016.
Police investigations later discovered the unauthorised log-in attempts made on Dr Kumar’s e-Learn account and obtained CCTV footage from the SMU campus that showed Tran using his MacBook at the time of the log-ins.
Following his arrest, Tran again denied committing the offences. Instead, he told the police that he suspected five others of framing him. Tran’s MacBook and Asus mobile phone were seized and sent for forensic examination, which revealed that Tran had contacted someone about erasing data from his laptop.
On 29 April 2016, Tran then visited Sim Lim Square to find a shop to get this done as he knew that records of his Internet activity and online browsing history were on his laptop’s hard-drive. He also wanted to erase the files which he had downloaded from the SMU server using Dr Kumar’s account.
Tran also claimed during investigations that Dr Kumar’s password had suddenly appeared in his MacBook Chrome browser after he had spent several weeks trying to guess it.
Actions carried ‘degree of maliciousness’
Citing Kotsaga’s case, DPP Khoo argued for a sentence of four months for Tran stating that the latter’s actions were more aggravating.
He noted that Tran was “belligerent, unremorseful, and uncooperative” during the course of investigations and had been given ample opportunities to own up but instead “decided to spin a story that he had been framed”. Tran’s actions also carried a “degree of maliciousness”, said the prosecution.
“Apart from amending the grades to benefit himself, he also amended the grades of one Yudi Alvin downwards by a significant amount… He also identified Yudi Alvin to the police as someone who possible framed him, the clear inference is that (Tran) had a bone to pick with Yudi Alvin and had no qualms going about doing so.”
In mitigation, Tran’s lawyer Amarjit Singh said that his client had been worried about losing his scholarship if he did not “buck up his grades”.
“Out of sheer desperation, he foolishly assessed account and his acts were discovered,” said Singh, adding that there had been no damage done to the computers.
For unauthorised modification to the contents of a computer, Tran could have been fined up to $10,000 and/or jailed up to three years on each charge; for knowingly causing a computer to perform any function for the purpose of securing unauthorised access, he could have been fined up to $5,000 and/or jailed up to two years on each charge; and for intentionally obstructing the course of justice, he could have been jailed up to seven years and/or fined.
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