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Department of Education: Hackers are now targeting elementary and high schools

 4:28 PM ET Tue, 24 Oct 2017
Even elementary schools have been attacked by cyber criminals.
Hill Street Studios | Getty Images
Even elementary schools have been attacked by cyber criminals.
     
     
     
     
     
     

No one is safe from a cyber attack, not even elementary school children.

Recently, a hacking group named "The Dark Overlord," known for hacking Netflix, has been linked to a series of attacks on school districts in three different states reports CNNThe Wall Street Journal reports that cyber-thieves have attacked more than three dozen schools.

On October 16, the Department of Education issued a warning for K-12 teachers, parents, students and administrators against the dangers of hackers like The Dark Overlord, citing instances of cyber attacks against school districts in three different states.

"Schools have long been targets for cyber-thieves and criminals," writes the department. "We are writing to let you know of a new threat, where the criminals are seeking to extort money from school districts and other educational institutions on the threat of releasing sensitive data from student records."

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Ariel Skelley | Getty Images

One such attack took place in Columbia Falls, Montana, where students and administrators were sent threatening messages demanding $150,000 in bitcoin in exchange for not publishing stolen school records. Columbia Falls Superintendent Steve Bradshaw tells CNN that students had received text messages referencing Sandy Hook Elementary that said things such as, "splatter kids' blood in the hallways."

No one is safe from a cyber attack, not even elementary school children.

Recently, a hacking group named "The Dark Overlord," known for hacking Netflix, has been linked to a series of attacks on school districts in three different states reports CNNThe Wall Street Journal reports that cyber-thieves have attacked more than three dozen schools.

On October 16, the Department of Education issued a warning for K-12 teachers, parents, students and administrators against the dangers of hackers like The Dark Overlord, citing instances of cyber attacks against school districts in three different states.

 

The attacks against Columbia Falls forced more than 30 schools to shut down for three days while law enforcement determined the hackers were located outside of the United States. According to The Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Valley College paid hackers $28,000 in ransom.

The Department of Education's letter confirmed that threats like these have now been observed multiple times, stating, "In some cases, this has included threats of violence, shaming, or bullying the children unless payment is received."

None of the threats have, to date, resulted in actual violence.

"These attacks are being actively investigated by the FBI, and it is important to note that none of the threats of violence have thus far been judged to be credible," explains the department.

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Westend61 | Getty Images

Officials believe that hackers are attacking the most vulnerable school districts those with "weak data security, or well-known vulnerabilities that enable the attackers to gain access to sensitive data."

In order to protect private information that can be stolen and used for extortion, the Department of Education suggests that schools conduct security audits and that they train staff and students on data security best practices.

Robert Herjavec, founder and CEO of cybersecurity firm Herjavec Group, and a star of ABC's "Shark Tank," tells CNBC that the threat of cyber attacks should not be underestimated.

"So long as there is a way for cyber criminals to get paid, with limited risk, attacks will continue," he says.

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When Schools Are Breached, Emotional Fallout Hard to Quantify

 
October 17, 2017 - 9:00am | by Dr. Rick Miller

The aftershock of a data breach isn’t always felt in a victim’s wallet. Much of the damage incurred is emotional, making these incidents hard to quantify with a dollar value. This is especially true at schools, where the victims of a breach can run the gamut in terms of maturity, allowing hackers to target an individual’s feelings in lieu of financial gain, if that satisfies their mission.

This was the case this past September in Columbia Falls, Montana, where cyber criminals targeted schools across Flathead County.  

Almost 30 private and public institutions in all were shut down the week of September 11, after it was discovered that multiple computer systems had been compromised, stemming from an initial breach in the Columbia Falls school district. The criminals leveraged the schools’ active directory to send graphic threats to administrators via text message and email. This was only the start, as law enforcement and eventually parents started receiving SMS and email taunts as the breadth of the incident widened over the course of the week.

Columbia Falls vs. The Dark Overlord

The threats came from a group calling themselves The Dark Overlord, which is the same name attributed to hackers believed to be behind a slew of recent big business hacks – Netflix, HBO – that experts suspect operate abroad. The exchanges in Columbia Falls started with a few innocuous and innocent-seeming texts to the Flathead County Sheriff Chuck Curry, which quickly escalated into threats to expose the personal information of users across school districts in exchange for a hefty ransom.

The threats escalated from there, singling out individuals within the community, as well as groups of students and their families. With each message growing more graphic than the next, administrators across the county were compelled to close schools while investigators attempted to trace the source of the threats.

A school year derailed

The tone of the emails grew increasingly antagonistic, focusing less on ransom and more on establishing widespread discomfort throughout the county. Even if the threats proved hollow, time out of class so early in the school year can derail teachers’ curriculum, forcing them to hastily draft new lesson plans to remedy disruption so early in the school year.

An increased police presence at school, too – especially in smaller communities where law enforcement is rarely a presence in the classroom – can have a traumatic effect on students, especially those who have had past trauma with police, whether that’s from a domestic incident or even just from following the news.

It will be a long time before residents across Flathead County feel normalcy again, and the disruption to the school year so early on sets a dour mood as students return to class. As this breach proved, incidents like this are far more than just a distraction for students, as pillars throughout the community – police and municipal leaders, for instance – were impacted by the threats, discomforting every neighbor in town. When the source of these threats can’t be immediately traced, and the legitimacy of these messages verified, the uncertainty can leave entire counties on edge – as if a rogue criminal was on the loose, evading police with every new clue.

While IT teams at Columbia Falls may have done enough to meet CIPA compliance, it’s clear that security protocols weren’t sufficient enough to prevent attacks that could derails schools throughout the county. This requires a heavier focus on malware detection and prevention that goes well beyond simple content filtering.

 

Dr. Miller served as superintendent at Santa Ana USD and Riverside USD, where he directed efforts of national notoriety. Over 27 years of experience as a superintendent and school leader, Dr. Miller contributed directly to tremendous advancements in the use of education technology in his school districts which led directly to education technology innovation across California. Dr. Miller will apply his experience working with school boards, superintendents, executive cabinets, and parent groups to raise awareness for the need to reform school policy and develop a cohesive organizational structure that assures successful and sustainable education technology innovation in alignment with a proactive cybersecurity strategy. As a member of California’s K-12 High Speed Network Advisory Board, Dr. Miller was responsible for policy and administrative leadership of California’s K-12 High Speed Network and was appointed to the California Education task force.

 

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