FBI warns of cyberattacks to distance learning

Monday, January 4, 2021

As students head back to the classroom after the holidays, the FBI is warning students, teachers and parents that cyber criminals and bad actors are looking to exploit online classrooms.

FBI Cyber Section Chief Dave Ring told ABC News the agency has seen an uptick in ransomware attacks.

"It's of greater concern now when it comes to K-12 education, because so many more people are plugged into the technology with schooling because of the distance learning situation," he said. "So things like distributed denial of service attacks, even ransomware and of course, domain spoofing, because parents are interacting so much more with the schools online."

In early December, the FBI and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency issued a warning that showed a nearly 30% increase in ransomware attacks against schools.

"In August and September, 57% of ransomware incidents reported to the MS-ISAC involved K-12 schools, compared to 28% of all reported ransomware incidents from January through July," the alert said.

Attacks on virtual classrooms vary. In Athens, Texas, criminals blocked hundreds of files, and the school district paid a ransom this summer to unlock them.

Another common incident that happens, according to Ring, is "zoombombing" - a practice where criminals enter an online classroom and post or yell a racist or inflammatory slur.

The motivations for each attack are different, Ring said.

"The broader the move to distance learning, I think the more attacks you're going to see, just simply because there are more opportunities for it and it's more disruptive," he explained. "Not everybody's looking to make money when it comes to criminal motivations for these attacks. A lot are they're looking to steal information. They're looking to use that for financial gain. They're looking to collect ransoms."

And some, Ring said, are just looking to "cause chaos."

Ring said it is hard to stop these attacks because law enforcement doesn't know what the next target will be.

Because of that, he said, "information sharing between the FBI, other elements and government that are responsible for cybersecurity infrastructure protection and school districts and school technology offices" is key.

He urged schools to work together with law enforcement and if something happens to report it to the FBI and local law enforcement.

"I think we've seen an uptick in it because it's of greater importance that schools have operating systems that are working every day, because it doesn't just disrupt internally what the school is doing, but it disrupts kids' everyday learning," Ring said.

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