US court convicts Indian-origin student who hacked professors’ computers to change his grades

Washington: An Indian-origin former University of Kansas student who admitted stealing professors’ computer passwords to change his grades has been convicted of four felonies.

Varun Sarja, 20, of Olathe, pleaded guilty on Friday to two counts of identity theft and two counts of unlawful computer acts. Fourteen other felony charges were dropped as part of the plea deal, The Lawrence Journal-World reported .

With no prior criminal history, Sarja will face probation under the state’s sentencing guidelines, Douglas County District Court Judge Kay Huff said. He’s scheduled to be sentenced on July 2.

Sarja also will be required to get a mental health evaluation, allow law enforcement to verify that his electronics no longer have the keystroke logger program and write apology letters to all the professors and teaching assistants who were affected, under plea deal recommendations from prosecutor Deborah Moody and Sarja’s attorney, John Kerns.

Before accepting Sarja’s plea, the judge asked him to explain to her what he did wrong. “Quite simply, I used passwords that weren’t mine to change my grades in the KU (University of Kansas) system,” Sarja said.

Sarja told the judge that he has completed his sophomore year of college, but did not specify where. KU held a hearing to remove him from the university in summer of 2017, after KU police began investigating the hacking but before criminal charges were filed, in November 2017.

Sarja was a freshman studying engineering at KU during the 2016-17 school year, when he successfully used a keystroke logger to steal instructors’ confidential login information, hack into multiple campus computers and change F’s to A’s.

Keystroke logger devices plug easily into computers and record every keystroke that’s typed, enabling hackers to obtain others’ user names and passwords for accounts and computer systems.

Sarja was on academic probation in spring 2017, and after being surprised to see he had an A in math, a KU School of Engineering academic adviser and the math professor began checking into it.

An ensuing investigation by KU police revealed that Sarja had changed almost all of his 10 grades that year, starting in December, and stole teachers’ login credentials to do it. Sarja told detectives he loved engineering, wanted to be successful and was scared to tell his parents he had failed classes.