MLSD details July cyber attack on district’s network

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Charled H. Featherstone/Columbia Basin Herald Moses Lake School Board member Shannon Hintz at Thursday’s meeting.

MOSES LAKE — It was a busy Thursday night meeting for the Moses Lake School Board as the board approved a new three-year teacher contract, outlined a new joint initiative with the Port of Moses Lake, passed its $122.5 million 2019-2020 budget, and revealed details of a massive cyber attack on the district’s computer network in late July.

According to Marlon Howell, the district’s technology director, on July 22 the district got hit with Russian malware, which encrypted and locked the district’s servers and its online backups.

“Someone in the Moses Lake School District clicked on a link in an email,” Howell told school board members. “The anti-malware system did not work, and we had to restore every server from backups.”

Howell said the district’s IT staff saw they were under attack and unplugged all of the district’s roughly 50 servers, but not before the malware’s authors issued a ransom demand — $1 million to unlock each server and online backup.

Instead of paying the ransom, Howell said the district blocked access to a number of overseas Internet Protocol (IP) addresses — particularly in Russia and China — and restored the servers from offline backups that were four to five months old. The offline backups were that old because with all the relocating going on the in the district, the IT department doesn’t have a place to put its dedicated backup systems right now.

“It was a perfect storm,” Howell said. “We are struggling with what we need to do our jobs.”

“I’m shocked and disappointed,” said school board president Elliott Goodrich. “This is not acceptable. This needs to be changed.”

Goodrich said the district needs to find a place for its offline backup systems, even if it’s only temporary. Howell said that in addition to blocking certain IP addresses, the district has also taken administrative rights from all its employees, who were previously free to install whatever they wanted onto their computers. The district has also acquired a cutting-edge anti-malware software, and will also train employees against phishing attacks — emails containing links that download viruses and other software that can steal information, erase it, or hold computer systems hostage.

“The bad guys are smart. They are very, very smart,” Howell said. “We’re still finding the virus and clearing it off our system.”

The board also announced that it is working with the Port of Moses Lake and Big Bend Community College to create an aviation maintenance program at the Columbia Basin Technical Skills Center beginning in the fall of 2020. BBCC Vice President for Learning and Student Services Bryce Humpherys told school board members that BBCC’s aviation program has traditionally served students from the west side of the state who have gone back across the Cascades to work for west side aerospace firms.

“But more and more students from our area are studying, and finding jobs locally,” Humpherys said.

In fact, he said the program is so successful many students are finding jobs after they get certified by the Federal Aviation Administration, but before they graduate. Humphreys said the CB Tech program would cover the first part of the FAA credentialing program, and that the college has some things it can donate to the school district in order to help get the program started.

“This is a unique opportunity for Moses Lake to show what we can do,” said Richard Hanover, business development director for the POML and a candidate for the school board.

“The port and the school district are working together to do what is best for our kids,” Goodrich said. “We’re on the same team.”

The MLSD is working with the POML, Association of Washington Business and other partners in the industry to implement Core Plus curriculum at the high school, which lets students learn how to build airplanes, boats and buildings.

In addition, in a 4-0 vote, school board members ratified a new, three-year contract with the district’s teachers. Goodrich recused himself from the vote, citing a conflict of interest, as he is married to a district teacher. Details of the contract will be released once the contract has been finalized, according to Superintendent Josh Meek.

Also during the meeting, POML officials conveyed ideas to the district on how to resolve any potential safety issues with regard to the Northern Columbia Basin Rail Project and elementary school No. 11. In a press release Meek said there will be a large space between the two facilities and 40 acres will separate them. He also said the POML is continuing “to develop this site to be mutually beneficial.”

Charles H. Featherstone can be reached at cfeatherstone@columbiabasinherald.com.

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