Virtual learning in the nation’s fourth-largest school district was disrupted earlier this week as schools opened, the result of an orchestrated cyberattack, The New York Times reports.
Miami-Dade County Public schools was hit with a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack, in which several computers run by criminals who show little regard for human life flood servers with malicious traffic that ties up their CPUs and prevents a timely response to users trying to hit the site from their browsers. Users typically report excessive lag times, frequent timeouts, or dropped connections when a Web server is under a DDoS attack. Miami students were unable to sign in to their classes because the login sequence was tied up with the malicious traffic.
The school system uses a platform developed by Virginia-based K12 Inc, which received a $15 million no-bid contract without board approval for “My School Online,” the platform Miami-Dade is using, according to a report in the Miami Herald.
A student news report confirms the nature of the disruption. “The origin and the extent of the hack currently remains unclear, but students still faced connectivity issues on the third day of school, which the district once again blamed on yet another cyberattack,” writes Jack Meyer in The Panther student newspaper at Miami Palmetto Senior High School.
Although DDoS attacks are not very sophisticated from a technical perspective, they are coordinated. The school district released a statement yesterday, saying that Miami-Dade Schools Police had arrested a 16-year-old student at South Miami High School and charged him in connection with the cyberattack. The statement read in part:
The student admitted to orchestrating eight Distributed Denial-of-Service cyberattacks, designed to overwhelm District networks, including web-based systems needed for My School Online. The student used an online application to carry out these attacks and has been charged with Computer Use in an Attempt to Defraud – a 3rd degree felony, and Interference with an Educational Institution – a 2nd degree misdemeanor.
The FBI and US Secret Service were also involved in the investigation.
“We believe, based upon our investigation, that other attackers are out there. We will not rest until every one of them is caught and brought to justice. Cyberattacks are serious crimes, which have far-reaching negative impacts. Our message to anyone thinking of attempting a criminal act like this is to think twice. We will find you,” said Police Chief Edwin Lopez.
Our teachers, students, and their families are under stress right now because of the pandemic. Adding frustration to their lives can cause or worsen uncounted mental health issues they face each day in their isolated bubbles.
We need to ensure access for all students in these times to whatever resources local districts can make available, and any malicious attempts to throw that access out add up to a violation of civil rights laws as well as technology laws. It is an obvious violation of any law that guarantees access to education, particularly for disadvantaged student groups.