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Riverhead schools: Computer system damaged by possible 'cyber incident'

Riverhead High School on April 16, 2021.

Riverhead High School on April 16, 2021. Credit: John Roca

The Riverhead school district's computer system was damaged by a possible "cyber incident" that has crippled its email and internet services, district officials said Friday.

District officials said they discovered the problem Friday and are investigating the source of the breakdown.

"Preliminary reports indicate it might stem from a cyber incident," the district said in a written statement.

A cyber incident is a breach of a system's security in order to affect its integrity or availability, or the unauthorized access to a system, according to the National Cyber Security Centre.

The announcement of the cyber incident occurred only days after the Riverhead Board of Education adopted a cyber incident response plan on Tuesday.

Officials said the full extent of the damage remains unclear. The incident has not affected the district's student management systems, as that data is housed off-campus. School phone lines remain operational, officials said.

Superintendent Augustine Tornatore did not respond to requests for an interview.

The Riverhead school district has about 6,000 students and 400 teachers, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

During Tuesday's school board meeting, technology director Robert Hines said the district has already placed advanced firewalls between the system and the internet.

The district has also upgraded email security, he said, noting that the great majority of cyberattacks start with an email.

He also noted that the district's wireless infrastructure needs improvement to handle growth in the district's system.

"Security of the school network is a paramount concern for all of us," Hines said during the meeting. "As a school district, we have risen to the occasion and are implementing practices and solutions that help keep our schools safe against attacks and comply with the law."

Several school districts on Long Island have fallen victim to cyberattacks that crippled their systems for days and weeks as they dealt with it.

A Sept. 14 ransomware attack against the Manhasset district created weeks of havoc for district telephones and voicemail, Wi-Fi, the purchase system in cafeterias, and teachers’ access to lesson plans and tests.

Cyberattacks and breaches against school systems are becoming more aggressive and damaging, exposing personal information and costing taxpayers big bucks to repair school technology, and, in some cases, pay ransoms to retrieve stolen data, experts say.

School districts are prime targets for cybercriminals because they hold an abundance of information on staff, students and local households, which can be stolen and used for identity theft and fraud.

On Long Island, 13 districts suffered cyberattacks or data breaches from 2018 through 2020, according to K12 Security Information Exchange. They are: Rockville Centre, Montauk, Port Jefferson, Mineola, Sag Harbor, Lindenhurst, Oceanside, Bay Shore, Lynbrook, Miller Place, Remsenburg-Speonk, Great Neck and Floral Park-Bellerose.

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