According to my friends with kids and my friend who teaches, distance learning is a less than ideal experience. It’s super impersonal, occasionally chaotic and unsurprisingly, super vulnerable to hackers. Baltimore County Public Schools has learned that last part the hard way, as its schools are all currently shut down due to a ransomware attack.
According to the New York Times, classes for all 115,000 students in the district have been canceled since last Wednesday, when the district was first made aware of the attack. The attack targeted the district’s websites, programs used to facilitate remote learning, as well as email programs and programs used to help grading.
Basically, everything needed to keep a virtual school up and running.
The district elected for the first half of the 2020-21 school year to be done entirely through virtual learning as result of the ongoing pandemic. The school tweeted that Chromebooks issued by the BCPS and the students’ Google accounts are safe, with the attack mainly focusing on Windows devices. Jim Corns, the district’s executive director of information technology, has said that none of the district’s data appears to have been stolen, they’ve just been prevented from accessing it.
“This is a ransomware attack which encrypts data as it sits and does not access or remove it from our system,” Corns said. “So we are engaging this as a ransomware attack.”
Ransomware attacks generally involve a hacker locking access to a person’s data, and offering to restore access for a price. Hence, ransom.
Schools and local governments have become increasingly vulnerable to these attacks as they typically have a lot of personal information and not much in the way of comprehensive encryption and data security protocols.
The K-12 Cybersecurity Resource Center, an organization that tracks incidents related to cybersecurity in K-12 schools, reports that so far 44 school districts in the country have been victim to ransomware attacks; in 2018, the number was only 11.
Doug Levin, founder of the organization, told the New York Times that he feels the number of incidents this year will match the 62 that happened in 2019. “Since the pandemic, when a school district experiences any incident, learning stops,” Levin said. “It’s that loss of resiliency which Covid has brought to light.”
Obviously, faculty members within the district were less than pleased with the attack. An anonymous professor told WBAL “These people who would infect school systems with ransomware — especially in a time of COVID, when school systems and teachers are under enough pressure as it is — should really have their own level of hell devoted to them.”
Students are expected to finally be able to return to school on Wednesday and the district tweeted that despite the closures, free lunch will still be available for students on Monday and Wednesday.
Chief Melissa R. Hyatt of the Baltimore County Police Department told reporters that law enforcement on the local, state and federal level were all working together to find the person responsible for the attack. Officials have still not said if a ransom has been established, nor what the potential amount is.