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No payoff for hackers, Arkansas school district says

by Jake Sandlin | January 14, 2017 at 2:37 a.m.

Computer hackers infected the Valley Springs School District's computer system with malicious software Thursday, locking access and demanding a ransom to restore its files and programs.

The hackers demanded a payment of 7,000 British pounds -- about $8,500 U.S. dollars -- from the school district, Superintendent Judy Green said Friday. The hackers used "ransomware," a program that locks a computer or computer network until a ransom is paid.

The school district won't pay, Green said, and is working to rid its system of all malicious software.

Thursday's cyberattack marks the latest in a recent spate of such attacks in Northwest Arkansas.

The Alpena School District in Boone County, the sheriff's office in neighboring Carroll County, and several other computer systems in that part of the state also have been victims of cyberattacks in recent weeks, according to authorities.

The Carroll County's sheriff's office paid a $2,440 ransom last month to re-access its system and have all but a few noncritical files restored, according to a Dec. 14 article in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Green said that when the district's technology coordinator logged on Thursday morning, a red screen with yellow writing appeared with a "big lock on one side," demanding the ransom be paid within 96 hours or the ransom would grow by 200 percent.

"The district has decided no, we're not paying. Our teachers will lose some of the things they've saved -- lesson plans, curriculum. If they made out a quiz or a test, that may be lost," Green said.

Ransomware is a type of malicious software, or "malware," designed to harm or disable a computer or computer system. Ransomware enters a system through an infected email or Internet link. Once a user clicks on the ransomware, a code infects the computer and begins encrypting files.

Green said the school district doesn't know yet what may have been lost.

"All of our computers are turned off," she said. " [The malware] was on the server. Until we get back in, we probably won't know for sure.

"We met with our faculty and staff [Thursday] afternoon so we would all be on the same page. We told them to expect the worst."

Chief Deputy Tim Roberson of the Boone County sheriff's office in Harrison said Friday that the department has school resource officers in the Valley Springs and Alpena districts and were aware of the issues. The department also contacted the Federal BI, he said.

The Arkansas State Police hasn't been asked to assist in any investigation of the cyberattacks, spokesman Bill Sadler said.

"As far as I know, they're not related," Roberson said of the separate cyberattacks in Boone and Carroll counties. "None of our schools have paid [a ransom]."

The officer assigned to the Alpena School District had its computer system "shut down really quick" when the malware was observed, Roberson said, and that district's computers were up and running again Friday.

"My understanding is they haven't lost anything," he said.

Valley Springs' student information and financial information are on a state server, Green said, and weren't affected.

The Valley Springs School District has been in contact with the Alpena School District about the cyberattacks, Green said, and other superintendents had called her offering assistance from their technology staffs. The state Department of Education also sent an employee Friday morning to Valley Springs to assist the district, she said.

"Having help available from everyone is nice to know," Green said. "It can happen to anyone. It's been a team effort.

"We have a disaster plan for a reason, and we are implementing our disaster plan," Green said. "Sometimes you think that you're made to have one of those and wonder why you would need it. Well, you need it."

Information for this article was contributed by Kenneth Heard of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Metro on 01/14/2017

Print Headline: No payoff for hackers, school district says


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