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Los Angeles Unified School district hit by cyberattack

A district statement says the ransomware attack occurred during the long holiday weekend and is likely criminal in nature.

LOS ANGELES — A external cyberattack targeting the huge Los Angeles Unified School District over the Labor Day weekend prompted an unprecedented shutdown of the district's information technology systems as authorities scrambled to trace the perpetrators and restrict potential damage.

Schools in the nation's second-largest district opened as scheduled on Tuesday and 540,000 students and 70,000 district employees were forced to change their passwords to prevent additional incursion from the ransomware attack. No demand for money was made.

Such attacks have become a growing threat to U.S. schools, with several high-profile incidents reported since last year as pandemic-forced reliance on technology increases the impact.

Authorities believe the LA attack originated internationally and have identified three potential countries where it may have come from, though Los Angeles Unified Superintendent Alberto Carvalho would not say which countries may be involved.

“This was an act of cowardice,” said Nick Melvoin, the school board vice president. “A criminal act against kids, against their teachers and against an education system.”

The district said the investigation and response involved the White House, the U.S. Department of Education, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency.

Although the district characterized the cyberattack as a “significant disruption to our system’s infrastructure,” officials did not expect major issues with instruction or such services as transportation and food, but business operations might be delayed or modified.

The perpetrators appear to have targeted the facilities systems, which involves information about private-sector contractor payments — which are publicly available through records requests — rather than confidential details like payroll, health and other data, Carvalho said.

The attack was discovered around 10:30 p.m. Saturday when staff detected “unusual activity” within the district's cyber systems, the superintendent said.

"We basically shut down every one of our systems,” he said, noting that each one had been checked and all but one — the facilities system — restarted by late Monday night.

The district plans to do a forensic audit of the attack to see what can be done to prevent future incursions.

“Every teacher, every employee, every student can be a weak point,” said Soheil Katal, the district's chief information officer.

A ransomware extortion attack in Albuquerque’s biggest school district forced schools to close for two days in January. At the time, the superintendent said virtual schooling in light of the pandemic offered more ways for hackers to access the district’s system.

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