HARTFORD, Conn. (WTNH) — The Hartford Public School District will hold its first day of school Wednesday, Sept. 9 after a ransomware attack delayed the start of the school year by one day for the system’s 18,000 students.
Hackers took down some of the schools’ critical communications systems, including two that assist with bussing and transportation.
The hack on Hartford has cybersecurity experts issuing dire warnings for other districts.
“There could be others going on out there right now,” said Frederick Scholl, a cybersecurity expert with Quinnipiac University.
“We are heavily relying on all of our technology and on our staff’s ability to access technology in order to deliver remote instruction given that more than half of our student population has elected to learn remotely,” said Hartford Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Leslie Torres-Rodriguez at a mid-morning press conference Tuesday.
The district went computer to computer at each of its 39 schools to make sure the equipment is secure for staff.
Here’s how the virus typically works: hackers use automated systems to scan tens of thousands of business, government, and private networks all across the world. Once they find a hole, they can worm their way in.
“The malware gets into the system through a vulnerability in remote access,” explained Scholl. “The next thing it does it look around for sensitive data,” and then, “it encrypts the information.”
Victims are then forced to pay—tens of thousands if not millions of dollars—to access their own data. But a system like Hartford’s typically has its own backups in place, so for them, the biggest price will likely be the time spent fixing the problem.
It’s happened to the district before, though not on this scale, according to Mayor Luke Bronin. Ransomware has also targeted other municipalities across the state in recent years, including in Wolcott and West Haven.
At his afternoon news briefing on Tuesday, Governor Ned Lamont says the state is “hardening” its technology and putting filters in place to detect intrusions, but added, “I think we’re better off today but we’re by no means safe with these attacks.”
The City of Hartford says its most sensitive material—children’s personal information—has not gotten out.
But expert Scholl says he has seen that happen in other ransomware attacks, and he has a major alert for parents:
“There are cases where, if your child is playing soccer or field hockey, these criminals will get a name a photo [and] they’ll go to the games and use social engineering to befriend your child.”
The best way to protect your child is to make sure your district has a plan.
“If not, raise the red flag,” said Scholl.