A Minneapolis school district is still dealing with ramifications after being the victim of a ransomware attack earlier this year.

In March, Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) notified the public that the “threat actor who has claimed responsibility for MPS’s recent encryption event has apparently posted online some of the data they accessed from MPS.”

Recent reports reveal that data was released after MPS refused to pay a ransom to the threat actors. Among the data taken by hackers, and released online to the hacker group’s Telegram account, were sensitive documents related to students and teachers, including students’ psychological reports and allegations of teacher abuse.

At an April school board meeting, Interim Superintendent Rochelle Cox reassured the MPS community that the district is continuing to notify individuals who have been impacted by the recent data breach as well as continue to work with external specialists and law enforcement to review the data downloaded onto the web after March 7.

“We do not have the results of that investigation,” Cox stated.

“This incident serves as yet another reminder of why schools, students and parents must make cybersecurity a priority,” said Darren Guccione, CEO and Co-Founder at Keeper Security. “This brazen attack and leak of sensitive information including students’ psychological reports and social security numbers further exemplifies the heartless nature of cyber threat actors. The district announced in March that it had not paid the ransom, however, it’s difficult to say what would have happened even if Minneapolis Schools paid the ransom, because cybercriminals are exactly what their name implies. They are criminals, and as such, they cannot be trusted. Paying a ransom provides no guarantee a bad actor will decrypt a victim’s files or reinstate access to their systems. Furthermore, there are ample examples of cybercriminals publishing stolen files to the dark web, even after receiving a payment.”

Security leaders weigh in

“Ransomware groups continue to prove they are ruthless, heartless criminals with zero conscience,” said Jon Miller, CEO and Co-founder of Halcyon. “They continue to victimize organizations in education and healthcare simply because they are easy targets. These sectors usually lack the appropriate budgets and staff to maintain a reasonable security posture. Despite available grant money or technology donations from big companies, these organizations likely don’t have the staff needed to properly manage and protect their infrastructure. Even if the attack can be resolved easily, the students whose personal information was stolen, may continue to be at risk of identity theft and financial fraud into the unforeseeable future.

“This is yet another example of why we must focus on preventing the exfiltration of sensitive data that comes before delivery of the ransomware payload. Data exfiltration in cases like this can actually be much more serious in the long term than the temporary disruption to systems during the attack.”

“Many schools keep more data than they should,” said Doug Thompson, Chief Education Architect at Tanium. “They often don’t ask the fundamental questions:

  • Why? — While state and federal regulations often require this data to be retained, processes should be refined on an ongoing basis to ensure that sensitive information isn't being stored unnecessarily.
  • Who? — Access to data needs to be closely controlled.  Much like the recent leak of DoD documents, providing access to a broad group is a risk.  
  • Duration? — Decisions need to be made as to how long to retain data. Sensitive information should be categorized and stored according to associated regulatory and business requirements.  
  • Where? — For the data that must be kept, it should be protected like the ‘crown jewels.’ Access should be limited and closely scrutinized with multiple security gates in place. Also, those with access, including their devices, should be carefully considered.”

Thompson adds that, from a device per IT person ratio perspective, schools are understaffed and underfunded which can hamper their ability to address these challenges.

“Many organizations are more focused on losing access to data due to ransomware rather than data leakage from a breach,” Thompson continued. “Similarly, reliance on cyber insurance rather than investing in personnel, tools and other resources has made organizations in the public and private sector alike somewhat complacent. However, this is changing due to the increased cost of cyber insurance and the transition from malicious encryption (ransomware) to outright data theft by threat actors.”

“In our own review of school systems, we have found that systems lack ubiquitous and consistent application of basic controls such as multifactor authentication (MFA), password hygiene, immutability, and endpoint controls,” said John Anthony Smith, CEO at Conversant Group. “To make matters worse, the school systems’ primary educational software applications and other educational-specific tools are often accessible from the internet without any restriction. It is relatively easy for a threat actor to obtain access to highly sensitive information in most schools, and I frankly find it shocking that we don't hear of this more often. I believe we can expect this to get worse. Stealing data and private records from children is a particularly bald display of the heartlessness of threat actors, and it is this callous focus on profit we must all keep in the forefront when thinking of security.”