Cyberattacks increasingly hobble pandemic-weary US schools

Cyberattacks increasingly hobble pandemic-weary US schools
The pandemic also has forced schools to turn increasingly toward virtual learning, making them more dependent on technology and more vulnerable to cyber-extortion. (File/AP)
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Updated 31 January 2022

Cyberattacks increasingly hobble pandemic-weary US schools

Cyberattacks increasingly hobble pandemic-weary US schools
  • Cyberattacks like the one that canceled classes for two days in Albuquerque’s biggest school district have become a growing threat to US schools

ALBUQUERQUE: For teachers at a middle school in New Mexico’s largest city, the first inkling of a widespread tech problem came during an early morning staff call.
On the video, there were shout-outs for a new custodian for his hard work, and the typical announcements from administrators and the union rep. But in the chat, there were hints of a looming crisis. Nobody could open attendance records, and everyone was locked out of class rosters and grades.
Albuquerque administrators later confirmed the outage that blocked access to the district’s student database — which also includes emergency contacts and lists of which adults are authorized to pick up which children — was due to a ransomware attack.
“I didn’t realize how important it was until I couldn’t use it,” said Sarah Hager, a Cleveland Middle School art teacher.
Cyberattacks like the one that canceled classes for two days in Albuquerque’s biggest school district have become a growing threat to US schools, with several high-profile incidents reported since last year. And the coronavirus pandemic has compounded their effects: More money has been demanded, and more schools have had to shut down as they scramble to recover data or even manually wipe all laptops.
“Pretty much any way that you cut it, incidents have both been growing more frequent and more significant,” said Doug Levin, director of the K12 Security Information Exchange, a Virginia-based nonprofit that helps schools defend against cybersecurity risk.
Precize data is hard to come by since most schools are not required to publicly report cyberattacks. But experts say public school systems — which often have limited budgets for cybersecurity expertise — have become an inviting target for ransomware gangs.
The pandemic also has forced schools to turn increasingly toward virtual learning, making them more dependent on technology and more vulnerable to cyber-extortion. School systems that have had instruction disrupted include those in Baltimore County and Miami-Dade County, along with districts in New Jersey, Wisconsin and elsewhere.
Levin’s group has tracked well over 1,200 cybersecurity incidents since 2016 at public school districts across the country. They included 209 ransomware attacks, when hackers lock data up and charge to unlock it; 53 “denial of service” attacks, where attackers sabotage or slow a network by faking server requests; 156 “Zoombombing” incidents, where an unauthorized person intrudes on a video call; and more than 110 phishing attacks, where a deceptive message tricks a user to let a hacker into their network.
Recent attacks also come as schools grapple with multiple other challenges related to the pandemic. Teachers get sick, and there aren’t substitutes to cover them. Where there are strict virus testing protocols, there aren’t always tests or people to give them.
In New York City, an attack this month on third-party software vendor Illuminate Education didn’t result in canceled classes, but teachers across the city couldn’t access grades. Local media reported the outage added to stress for educators already juggling instruction with enforcing COVID-19 protocols and covering for colleagues who were sick or in quarantine.
Albuquerque Superintendent Scott Elder said getting all students and staff online during the pandemic created additional avenues for hackers to access the district’s system. He cited that as a factor in the Jan. 12 ransomware attack that canceled classes for some 75,000 students.
The cancelations — which Elder called “cyber snow days” — gave technicians a five-day window to reset the databases over a holiday weekend.
Elder said there’s no evidence student information was obtained by hackers. He declined to say whether the district paid a ransom but noted there would be a “public process” if it did.
Hager, the art teacher, said the cyberattack increased stress on campus in ways that parents didn’t see.
Fire drills were canceled because fire alarms didn’t work. Intercoms stopped working.
Nurses couldn’t find which kids were where as positive test results came in, Hager said. “So potentially there were students on campus that probably were sick.” It also appears the hack permanently wiped out a few days worth of attendance records and grades.
Edupoint, the vendor for Albuquerque’s student information database, called Synergy, declined to comment.
Many schools choose to keep attacks under wraps or release minimal information to prevent revealing additional weaknesses in their security systems.
“It’s very difficult for the school districts to learn from each other, because they’re really not supposed to talk to each other about it because you might share vulnerabilities,” Elder said.
Last year, the FBI issued a warning about a group called PYSA, or “Protect Your System, Amigo,” saying it was seeing an increase in attacks by the group on schools, colleges and seminaries. Other ransomware gangs include Conti, which last year demanded $40 million from Broward County Public Schools, one of the nation’s largest.
Most are Russian-speaking groups that are based in Eastern Europe and enjoy safe harbor from tolerant governments. Some will post files on the dark web, including highly sensitive information, if they don’t get paid.
While attacks on larger districts garner more headlines, ransomware gangs tended to target smaller school districts in 2021 than in 2020, according to Brett Callow, a threat analyst at the firm Emsisoft. He said that could indicate bigger districts are increasing their spending on cybersecurity while smaller districts, which have less money, remain more vulnerable.
A few days after Christmas, the 1,285-student district of Truth or Consequences, south of Albuquerque, also had its Synergy student information system shut down by a ransomware attack. Officials there compared it to having their house robbed.
“It’s just that feeling of helplessness, of confusion as to why somebody would do something like this because at the end of the day, it’s taking away from our kids. And to me that’s just a disgusting way to try to, to get money,” Superintendent Channell Segura said.
The school didn’t have to cancel classes because the attack happened on break, but the network remains down, including keyless entry locks on school building doors. Teachers are still carrying around the physical keys they had to track down at the start of the year, Segura said.
In October, President Joe Biden signed the K-12 Cybersecurity Act, which calls for the federal cybersecurity agency to make recommendations about how to help school systems better protect themselves.
New Mexico lawmakers have been slow to expand Internet usage in the state, let alone support schools on cybersecurity. Last week, state representatives introduced a bill that would allocate $45 million to the state education department to build a cybersecurity program by 2027.
Ideas on how to prevent future hacks and recover from existing ones usually require more work from teachers.
In the days following the Albuquerque attack, parents argued on Facebook over why schools couldn’t simply switch to pen and paper for things like attendance and grades.
Hager said she even heard the criticism from her mother, a retired school teacher.
“I said, ‘Mom, you can only take attendance on paper if you have printed out your roster to begin with,’” Hager said.
Teachers could also keep duplicate paper copies of all records — but that would double the clerical work that already bogs them down.
In an era where administrators increasingly require teachers to record everything digitally, Hager says, “these systems should work.”


Nearly half of Ethiopia’s Tigray faces ‘severe’ lack of food: WFP

Nearly half of Ethiopia’s Tigray faces ‘severe’ lack of food: WFP
Updated 5 sec ago

Nearly half of Ethiopia’s Tigray faces ‘severe’ lack of food: WFP

Nearly half of Ethiopia’s Tigray faces ‘severe’ lack of food: WFP
  • Around 47 percent “of the surveyed households are classified as... severely food insecure,” the report said, compared to nearly 40 percent of the population according to a WFP assessment published in January this year

ADDIS ABABA: Nearly half of the population in Ethiopia’s war-torn region of Tigray is suffering from a severe lack of food, with conditions “set to worsen as people enter peak hunger season,” the UN’s World Food Programme warned Friday.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government has been locked in a conflict with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) rebel group since November 2020, leaving Ethiopia’s northernmost region in the grip of a serious humanitarian crisis.
In its latest assessment covering November 2021 — June 2022, the WFP said that 89 percent of Tigray’s six million population was food-insecure or lacking consistent access to food.
Around 47 percent “of the surveyed households are classified as... severely food insecure,” the report said, compared to nearly 40 percent of the population according to a WFP assessment published in January this year.
“Hunger has deepened, rates of malnutrition have skyrocketed, and the situation is set to worsen as people enter peak hunger season until this year’s harvest in October,” according to WFP.
The dire assessment comes despite a humanitarian truce in March allowing the resumption of desperately needed international aid convoys to the stricken region’s capital Mekele, with fuel shortages making it difficult to distribute supplies.
“Although humanitarian partners have increased supplies to Tigray... with 6,105 trucks having arrived in Mekelle as of 26 July 2022, this is yet to translate into increased humanitarian assistance, as other challenges remain, such as limited access to fuel,” the report said.
Malnutrition among children aged between six to 50 months has soared to alarming levels, with six percent of screened children diagnosed with severe acute malnutrition.
“Out of the surveyed children, 65 percent had not received nutritional support for over a year,” the report said.
Since the conflict broke out 21 months ago, Tigray has had limited access to food and basic services such as electricity, communications and banking.
Abiy sent troops to topple the TPLF, the region’s former ruling party, saying the move came in response to rebel attacks on army camps.
The rebels mounted a comeback, recapturing Tigray and expanding into Afar and Amhara, before the war reached a stalemate.
On Wednesday, Abiy’s government called for a formal cease-fire agreement to be reached as soon as possible to enable the resumption of basic services to Tigray.
But the TPLF insists that basic services would have to be restored to the region before dialogue can begin, with both sides blaming each other for the impasse.

 


Putin to allow inspectors to visit Russia-occupied nuclear plant

Putin to allow inspectors to visit Russia-occupied nuclear plant
Updated 27 min 43 sec ago

Putin to allow inspectors to visit Russia-occupied nuclear plant

Putin to allow inspectors to visit Russia-occupied nuclear plant

ODESSA: Russian President Vladimir Putin has agreed that independent inspectors can travel to the Moscow-occupied Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant, the French presidency said Friday, as fears grow over fighting near the site.
The apparent resolution of a dispute over whether inspectors travel via Ukraine or Russia came as a US defense official said Ukraine’s forces had brought the Russian advance to a halt.
“You are seeing a complete and total lack of progress by the Russians on the battlefield,” the official said, speaking on grounds of anonymity.
According to French President Emmanuel Macron’s office, Putin had “reconsidered” his demand that the International Atomic Energy Agency travel through Russia to the Zaporizhzhia nuclear site.
The UN nuclear watchdog’s chief, Rafael Grossi “welcomed recent statements indicating that both Ukraine and Russia supported the IAEA’s aim to send a mission to” the plant.
Meanwhile, UN chief Antonio Guterres urged Moscow’s forces occupying Zaporizhzhia not to disconnect the facility from the grid and potentially cut supplies to millions of Ukrainians.
A flare-up in fighting around the Russian-controlled nuclear power station — with both sides blaming each other for attacks — has raised the spectre of a disaster worse than in Chernobyl.
The Kremlin said that Putin and Macron agreed that the IAEA should carry out inspections “as soon as possible” to “assess the real situation on the ground.”
Putin also “stressed that the systematic shelling by the Ukrainian military of the territory of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant creates the danger of a large-scale catastrophe,” the Kremlin added.
The warning came just a day after Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Guterres, meeting in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, sounded the alarm over the fighting, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky urged the United Nations to secure the site.
“This summer may go down in the history of various European countries as one of the most tragic of all time,” Zelensky said in his Friday evening address.
“No instruction at any nuclear power plant in the world provides a procedure in case a terrorist state turns a nuclear power plant into a target.”
During his visit to the southern port of Odessa on Friday, the UN secretary general said that “obviously, the electricity from Zaporizhzhia is Ukrainian electricity. This principle must be fully respected.”
“Naturally, its energy must be used by the Ukrainian people,” he told AFP in separate comments.
On Thursday, Moscow said Kyiv was preparing a “provocation” at the site that would see Russia “accused of creating a man-made disaster at the plant.”
Kyiv, however, insisted that Moscow was planning the provocation, and said Russia’s occupying forces had ordered most staff to stay home Friday.
Guterres visited Odessa as part of an effort to make more Ukrainian grain available to poor countries struggling with soaring food prices, after a landmark deal with Russia last month to allow its export.
The deal, the only significant agreement between Russia and Ukraine since Moscow invaded in February, has so far seen 25 boats carrying some 600,000 tons of agricultural products depart from three designated ports, Kyiv has said.
Guterres is expected to head to Turkey after Odessa to visit the Joint Coordination Center, the body tasked with overseeing the accord.
The grain deal has held, but brought little respite along the sprawling front lines after nearly six months of fighting between US-supplied Ukrainian forces and the Russian military.
The United States on Friday announced a new $775 million arms package, including more precision-guided missiles for Himars systems that enable Ukraine to strike Russian targets far behind the front lines.
The primary tool of Moscow’s forces has been artillery barrages, and recent bombardments over the eastern Donetsk region — which has been partially controlled by Russian proxies since 2014 — left several dead.
The Ukrainian head of the region, Pavlo Kyrylenko, said on social media Friday that Russian strikes had killed five people and wounded 10 more in three settlements.
Strikes early Friday in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city, left one person dead and damaged a school and a private business, the head of the region said.


Greece: 71 migrants aboard boat reaching southern island

Greece: 71 migrants aboard boat reaching southern island
Updated 20 August 2022

Greece: 71 migrants aboard boat reaching southern island

Greece: 71 migrants aboard boat reaching southern island
  • Some 170 people, the vast majority from Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran, had arrived at Kythera on another two sailing boats on Wednesday

ATHENS: Greek authorities on Friday raised to 71 the number of migrants aboard a sailboat that reached the southern island of Kythera a day earlier, the third crammed vessel to do so in two days.
The boat, a sailing catamaran, was located in the early hours of Thursday off Kythera’s western coastline.
The coast guard said seven women and 12 minors were among the 71 people aboard.
Nine were from Iran and the rest from Iraq.
On Thursday, the coast guard had said initial indications were that the boat had been carrying 67 people.

Humanitarianism is very important, but the people who wish to come to the EU due to the inequalities that exist in the world are hundreds of millions.

Notis Mitarachi, Migration minister

Some 170 people, the vast majority from Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran, had arrived at Kythera on another two sailing boats on Wednesday.
The coast guard said five people were arrested on suspicion of migrant smuggling — three Turkish nationals who had been on board the first vessel, and two Russian nationals on the second.
Located off the southern tip of the Peloponnese, Kythera isn’t a target destination for the thousands of people fleeing conflict and poverty in the Middle East, Asia and Africa.
Most attempting to make it into the EU cross from the Turkish coast to nearby Greece’s eastern Aegean islands.
But with Greek authorities increasing patrols in the area and facing persistent reports of push-backs — summary and illegal deportations of new arrivals back to Turkey without allowing them to apply for asylum — more people are attempting a much longer and more dangerous route directly to Italy.
Greek authorities deny they carry out pushbacks.
On Friday, Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi said on Greece’s Skai radio that migration flows into Greece were at their lowest in a decade last year, with 8,500 people arriving in the country in 2021.
Skai radio quoted him as saying that 2022 was expected to see the second-lowest number of arrivals in the past 10 years, with around 7,000 people having arrived so far.
Greece has been widely criticized by aid groups, asylum seekers and some European politicians for using heavy-handed tactics, particularly pushbacks, to keep arrival numbers down.
“Humanitarianism is very important, but the people who wish to come to the EU due to the inequalities that exist in the world are hundreds of millions,” Skai quoted Mitarachi as saying.
“We’re not speaking of a closed Europe, but nor of a Europe in which traffickers decide who gets in.”
Mitarachi repeated that a 38-km fence along Greece’s northeastern land border with Turkey would be extended by another 80 km.
Greek authorities came under withering criticism last week over a group of mainly Syrians who had been trapped for days on an islet in the Evros River that runs along the Greek-Turkish border in Greece’s northeast.
Greek officials insist the islet is on the Turkish side of the border.
Police on Monday said they found 38 people on the Greek side of the border, away from the river.
The group told authorities a five-year-old girl had died of a scorpion sting on the islet during the ordeal.
Mitarachi said earlier this week that Greece would work with the International Red Cross and Red Crescent for the recovery of the child’s body.


France’s Macron assails Putin’s ‘brutal attack’ on Ukraine

France’s Macron assails Putin’s ‘brutal attack’ on Ukraine
Updated 19 August 2022

France’s Macron assails Putin’s ‘brutal attack’ on Ukraine

France’s Macron assails Putin’s ‘brutal attack’ on Ukraine
  • Putin is seeking to impose his “imperialist will” on Europe: French president

PARIS: Hours after talking with Vladimir Putin, French President Emmanuel Macron on Friday accused the Russian leader of launching a “brutal attack” on Ukraine in an imperialist, revanchist violation of international law.

Macron, who tried tirelessly but unsuccessfully to prevent the invasion and long vaunted the importance of dialogue with Putin, has grown increasingly critical of the Russian president as the war bears on.

He warned French citizens that the resulting energy and economic crisis confronting Europe isn’t over, calling it “the price of our freedom and our values.”

“Since Vladimir Putin launched his brutal attack on Ukraine, war has returned to European soil, a few hours away from us,” Macron said in a speech commemorating the 78th anniversary of the Allied landing in Nazi-occupied southern France during World War II.

Macron said Putin is seeking to impose his “imperialist will” on Europe, conjuring “phantoms of the spirit of revenge” in a “flagrant violation of the integrity of states.”

Earlier Friday, Macron spoke more than an hour with Putin to urge Russia to accept Ukraine’s conditions to allow UN nuclear inspectors to visit Europe’s largest nuclear plant. There are growing international concerns about security at the Zaporizhzhia plant, which is occupied by Russian forces and at the heart of the war.

The leaders also discussed efforts to get grain and other food commodities out of Russia. EU sanctions aimed at ending the war make exceptions for food.

It was their 20th conversation this year but their first in three months.


FDA asks Pfizer to test second Paxlovid course in patients with COVID rebound

FDA asks Pfizer to test second Paxlovid course in patients with COVID rebound
Updated 19 August 2022

FDA asks Pfizer to test second Paxlovid course in patients with COVID rebound

FDA asks Pfizer to test second Paxlovid course in patients with COVID rebound
  • The regulator said a formal plan for the clinical trial is expected to be finalized this month

DUBAI: The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has ordered Pfizer Inc. to test the effects of an additional course of its antiviral Paxlovid among people who experience a rebound in COVID-19 after treatment, the regulator said on Friday.
The drugmaker must produce initial results of a randomized controlled trial of a second course of the antiviral by Sept. 30 next year, the FDA told Pfizer in a letter dated Aug. 5.
The regulator said a formal plan for the clinical trial is expected to be finalized this month.
Pfizer is “working with the FDA to finalize a protocol to study patients who may be in need of retreatment,” and will provide details when available, a company spokesperson said.