Colorado schools prepare for potential cyber ransom attacks

Posted at 9:40 PM, Nov 29, 2017
and last updated 2017-11-30 00:42:08-05

DENVER -- Just when it seemed hackers would stop at nothing, it appears they are now targeting schools nationwide, holding student information ransom and even threatening violence. While no Colorado schools have reported being a target of that specific attack, many are bracing for the possibility.

The Department of Education issued a warning about the threat last month, after a cyberattack on a Montana school in which the hacker gained access to the district's security cameras, threatened to kill children and demanded ransom to not release personal information such as Social Security numbers, phone numbers and addresses.

The idea of schools being a target of cyberattacks is nothing new for Alex Sung, the Director of Technology Infrastructure for Denver Public Schools.

"There is a lot of things that keep me up at night," said Sung. "There are constant attacks on our network and we're just doing the best we can."

Denver voters approved a bond last year, and Sung said that helped beef up cybersecurity from electronics to hiring a student data privacy officer to educating students and staff about threats.

"We have had breaches of course. Fortunately, nothing very major and we have been able to mitigate them," said Sung.

At Jefferson County Schools, Chief Security Officer Chris Paschke is also scrambling to stay ahead of hackers.

"We are seeing some specific phishing attacks targeted towards our school district and other school districts in the area, so we've been stepping up our work in parallel of what is going on," said Paschke, who said the district has a team of five people dedicated to information security.

He said districts like JeffCo are conducting security audits to find weaknesses. For example, Jeffco updated its camera system last year to make it more secure.

Even though no Colorado schools have reported extortion or threats, security experts with Red Canary believe this next evolution of cyberattack is just starting.

While the school in Montana didn't pay the ransom, that is always a risk.

"Nothing bad has come of it, thankfully," said Keith McCammon, Chief Security Officer with Red Canary. "But they had to close the school for sometime. Shut down systems. It disrupts the whole education system."

Experts said parents and students need to focus on fundamentals: Protect usernames and passwords, update technology and monitor accounts for suspicious activity.