Dan Rattiner's Stories

Sag Harbor School Computers Hacked by Unknown Computer Experts

What would happen to schedules, reports, college acceptance info, salaries and grades?

Kids at Sag Harbor’s Pierson High School who have bad grades might have gotten a lot to cheer about last Monday, November 11. On that day, administrators and teachers found out that hackers had seized the school’s computer system. What would happen to class schedules, reports, college acceptance information, salaries to be paid, bank balances? And the grades.

Of course, in the next few hours and days, Superintendent of Schools Katy Graves, citing the backup they had for such an occasion, hoped to get the system staggering to its feet. The outage, they initially predicted, might last 24 hours, or maybe a bit longer—but in fact, they were still down on Monday, November 18, according to a clerk at the front desk at the school system. Professionals from the outside have been brought in to reset everything from the backup. It would have to be done carefully to make sure everything is okay. The system has, after all, been in an accident. It will have to be dusted off and gone over.

Probably it’s all still there. But we still don’t know exactly what the hackers got to look at, if anything.

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Everyone keenly remembers what happened in Montauk two years ago. In December of that year, hackers shut down the entire Montauk School’s computer system. They did have an encrypted backup, but Jack Perna, the superintendent, said the district, instead of hiring expensive professionals to deal with their encrypted backup, paid the hostage takers $900 in Bitcoin. A bitcoin was worth about $20,000 at the time. So did they cut up a bitcoin? Wait. Bitcoins are just numbers. So they paid with a fraction of a bitcoin. And with that, the hack
was lifted.

After that, they hired an outside company, Long Island Computer Networks, to encrypt all their data and oversee its safety. And all our other local school districts and village and town boards, encouraged by the county and state, armored up too. They are making use of cyber-insurance, too. Teams of anti-hacking and anti-virus system cyber-soldiers are on the job. It’s a whole new industry with full-time people working everywhere to keep us safe. That is taking place in many Long Island towns, including tougher new efforts in Mineola and Rockville Centre, which were broken into in 2018. Lesson learned.

In 2018, East Hampton Village suffered through four phishing attacks, it was reported, but fended all of them off. They are understandably proud of this. Each phishing attack consisted of an impersonation where an attacker pretended to be a village employee. Deposit all future checks for this person, on my orders, to this new and different bank account. But school officials got suspicious and none of it happened.

You almost never hear of a bunch of hackers getting arrested. Drug lords, yes. Terrorists, yes. Murderers, yes. But you almost never hear about some guy being handcuffed, put into the back of a police car and frog-walked to a police station, then to a court for booking and then straight to jail, with bail denied, so the perp can stand trial, get convicted and punished for having seized control of a school district.

So who are these people?

Without much reliable evidence, our local officials say they are Russians, or Chinese people, or North Koreans. But maybe it’s a lot simpler than that. Maybe it’s just some sophomore who is a computer genius but got a D- in Chemistry.

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