Editorial: Schools face new urgency with online attacks

In this file photo taken on June 27, 2017, a laptop displays a message after being infected by a ransomware as part of a worldwide cyberattack in Geldrop.

As if school districts did not have enough to worry about in the age of the active shooter drill, a threat rooted in the rise of technology has taken hold around the nation, including at Connecticut districts, that can grind activity to a halt unless a big-ticket ransom is paid.

Ransomware, which can hold computer systems hostage for weeks or months, is a growing threat to any organization, with schools around Connecticut and the nation increasingly being targeted. With a lack of knowledgeable defenses and budgets as tight as ever, it’s one more concern to add to an ever-growing list of worries.

The pace of attacks has been increasing. Middletown this year dealt with an attack that disabled access to critical business systems and applications. Last month, state police investigated the discovery of ransomware on Sherman school computer servers. In August, the Wolcott school board approved a request to allocate money for ransom. Schools in Wallingford, New Haven and Pomfret, among others, have all been victims of a ransomware attack in the recent past.

Around the country, ransomware infections have hit more than 500 U.S. schools in the first nine months of the year, according to a report published last week by cyber-security firm Armor. And while it’s a nationwide problem, Connecticut had the highest number of educational institutions — seven — in any state to be compromised by ransomware attacks this year.

And it’s not just schools, as local municipalities have found themselves targeted with malware, as well as plenty of businesses. But education appears to be fertile ground for scammers, and local officials need to take extra precautions not only to protect their systems, but to avoid being forced to pay thousands or millions of dollars in ransom to regain access to them.

There has been action at the federal level, with the U.S. Senate passing a bill that would create incident response teams to help private and public entities defend against cyber-attacks, such as ransomware. The bill previously passed the House floor and is expected to be signed into law soon.

The state needs to act, as well. It could follow the lead of Louisiana, another state that has been hit hard by malware attacks. Their governor declared a state of emergency and brought together multiple state and private incident response teams to help school districts recover control without paying ransom demands.

Still, much of the burden will fall on local school districts that are on the front line of threats and possible responses. That means administrators becoming more knowledgeable about the dangers of ransomware and how to prevent it, and everyone with access to a system — which means nearly everyone in a district — taking extra precautions to prevent trouble.

This is something school officials may not have prepared themselves for, but is a legitimate issue that is accelerating in frequency. Only by clearly understanding the dangers and solutions can administrators regain the upper hand from cyber criminals.

Connecticut Media Group