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Schools call on FCC for cybersecurity funding

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Students and parents arrive masked for the first day of the term at a Los Angeles school.

Students arrive at a Los Angeles elementary school in August 2021. The district is grappling with the fallout from a ransomware attack early this month. Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images

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The Los Angeles Unified School District, the country’s second-largest, is still dealing with the effects of a ransomware attack that occurred earlier this month.

As it grapples with that, the L.A. district — joined by hundreds of others around the country — is calling on the Federal Communications Commission to make more cybersecurity funding available for schools.

But why are schools such attractive targets in the first place? And what can be done to protect them?

When Timothy Tillman hears about a cyberattack on a big district like L.A., he feels “scared,” he said. Tillman is chief technology officer for Chesterfield County Public Schools near Richmond, Virginia. It has about 65,000 students, one-tenth the size of the Los Angeles district. 

“There is an expectation that they would have everything in place, and they still got hit,” he said. “So what chance do we have?”

Tillman, who is part of the group calling on the FCC for more resources, said he has all the problems of a corporation — with the budget of a school district. 

Like all of us, teachers can be vulnerable to deceptive messages from hackers. “They’re susceptible to things like urgency or to an angry parent demanding an answer,” Tillman said.

Another reason schools are vulnerable is that they deal with lots of outside vendors, from online textbook companies to the guy who delivers the milk, according to Doug Levin, who directs the K12 Security Information Exchange, a nonprofit member association for schools.

When a hack is successful, “school districts themselves may not be able to route their school buses, operate point of sale in the cafeteria to serve a lunch,” he said. “They may not even have control over their security systems.”

The industry that’s selling all this technology to educators is also selling solutions to deal with cyberattacks, like artificial intelligence software that promises to stop them before they get in the door.

But districts have to invest in tech training, said Lesley Carhart of the cybersecurity firm Dragos.

“None of these things are magical. None of them are just going to work by themselves. They require care and feeding.”

Feeding by cybersecurity professionals who may command high salaries — which most school districts can’t pay. 

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