WINTHROP, Mass. — For the last two and a half weeks, investigators were parsing through the Winthrop school district and town servers to see what was bogging them down. Finally, they learned Thursday, it was a malicious attack.
“It’s like the worst senior year in history. It’s awful. It’s so bad,” said Gianna Joyce, Winthrop High School senior.
And it just got worse for Joyce.
“We cannot use paper because of COVID and we can’t get any of our work done on the computers,” she said.
Police say the culprits essentially handcuffed any online learning by overwhelming bandwidth resources with large amounts of data.
“My first teacher tried three times and he got kicked so he was just like ‘You’re free. You guys go read this in this’ and my algebra teacher just kept trying to go with it because he didn’t want to be behind because he’s behind on his lessons and our classes need to match up,” Joyce said. “Plus he’s older, so I guess it’s frustrating for him too and he was just trying to figure it out. Some students do it on the phones to and that’s taking away from their data.”
The malicious computer attack prevented students and teachers from utilizing Internet-based resources such as Google Classroom, email, video conferencing, and other services while in school buildings. This attack also disrupted town municipal offices.
The attack, known as a Distributed Denial of Service attack (DDoS), is designed to overwhelm the bandwidth resources with large amounts of data, which is what prevented students and teachers from accessing the online learning resources. No student, employee, or financial data was accessed as a result of the attack.
“I appreciate everyone’s patience as we meet these challenges head-on and continue to hold student learning and safety as our top priority,” Superintendent Howard said. “I will update you again as we move through the process of recovering from this unanticipated and unwarranted attack on our school district and town.”
“Thank you to all who worked swiftly to address this issue and protect the confidential data from this attack,” Town Manager Faison said. “We are following all mandatory reporting requirements regarding data privacy breaches, and will continue to monitor the situation and provide updates to the community as needed.”
School and Town officials are working with their internet service provider and technology experts to correct the issues and restore service as soon as possible. Additional safeguards will also be implemented to protect the servers from future attacks.
There will be no changes to the Winthrop Public Schools hybrid learning schedule, though students may encounter some interruptions until all alternate internet connections have been set up for teachers.
The Winthrop Police Department, in conjunction with state and federal agencies, are investigating the matter and are working to identify the source of the attack. Police do say they are close to catching the culprit.
“I’d like to equate this to the new viral bomb scare,” said Winthrop Police Chief Terence Delehanty. “Years ago when I was a kid and I was in school, someone called bomb scare in around finals time and everyone had to evacuate the building. Now, they don’t even have to do that. They can actually compromise your Internet service.”
“My teachers were talking about it today,” said Joyce. “They think it’s a cyberattack. I don’t know I thought it was just the Wi-Fi problem.”
This cyberattack comes on top of virtual meetings we’ve seen hijacked in places like Westwood & Newburyport. In Taunton, we also saw second-graders who were forced to watch an older student perform a sex act on camera during class. Plus in October, there was a similar cyberattack in Tyngsboro where someone brought in a malicious thumb drive and plugged it into the school computers.
“This can be done over the Internet,” said Delehanty. “It could come in from a different country. So it’s very difficult to investigate these types of crimes, but I can tell you today we’ve made great progress. We’ve had substantial leads in this case and we feel confident that we will be able to identify the people that were involved and hold them accountable.”
“As a senior, we are all applying to colleges right now and we have all our college stuff we have to do we have to write letters and scholarship essays and we can’t do any of that. That’s really frustrating,” said Joyce. “If I’m at home, I can’t hear what the teachers are saying or see what they’re doing so it’s frustrating and if I’m at school just sitting there and doing nothing all day. I have friends personally who do not have Wi-Fi at home so we all got kind of screwed. Like the whole school and I have two sisters, one is in the middle school and they can’t do anything either.”
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