TUSD’s Cyber Shutdown: District will need help, and millions of dollars, to rebound from ransomware attack
TUCSON, Ariz. (13 News) - The Tucson Unified School District was hobbled by a ransomware attack in late January.
13 News’ Valerie Cavazos has been reporting on the attack from the beginning to find out how it happened, why it happened and what’s being done to prevent it from happening again.
The district says it will take millions of dollars to recover from the hack as it works to restore computers, recover data and boost security measures to prevent another strike.
The district had a five-year technology plan to boost security, but the hacker group Royal threw a wrench in those plans by stealing sensitive data and catching leaders off guard.
Now the district says it has to move fast as it tries to prevent something like this from happening again.
“To be completely honest with you and transparent, we may be hit again in a couple of months or a couple of years,” said Rabih Hamadeh, the district’s director of technical services.
The district says speeding up the plan to increase security measures will cost millions of dollars.
“Due to the cyberattack, we’re asking for at least 20 percent (increase) of our budget,” Hamadeh said.
“It’s money, it’s time, and it’s an investment,” said Blaine Young, the district’s Chief Operations Officer.
The attack left leaders wondering why more hasn’t been done on a state and federal level to help.
A recent report by Homeland Security revealed many districts lack the internal expertise to match the challenges of cybersecurity.
They found “no K-12 entity can singlehandedly identify and prioritize emerging threats, vulnerabilities, and risks.”
Homeland Security recommended districts focus on collaboration and information sharing with help at the federal and state levels.
Pima County Superintendent Dustin Williams said that’s easier said than done.
“I always feel like the local level and the federal level are just miles apart,” Williams said. “I feel like we just don’t talk enough. I still feel it’s really really hard just to talk from local to state.”
Williams said getting reliable funding from the state hasn’t been easy, but would help bring in highly skilled cybersecurity experts from the private sector.
“When you come to the government sector, you don’t make as much money,” Williams said. “So finding talent is also going to be a big, big challenge for our schools.”
“I don’t think you need several, but some top, top expertise that can come to the table and share what are the best practices to protect our schools,” he said.
Williams thinks the Arizona Department of Education would be a good starting point to push cybersecurity up the priority ladder with state Superintendent Tom Horne leading the way.
“Tom Horne needs to step up and see what sort of committee he needs to put together to work with schools and make sure our schools are protected,” Williams said.
13 News caught up with Horne when he visited a school in Tucson last week to discuss this approach.
“I’ll say this because I’ve gotten inquiries,” Horne said. “My area is expertise is education and academics, not cybersecurity. So I’ve been referring them to the Department of Homeland Security because they have the real expertise.”
Horne was referring to the Arizona Department of Homeland Security.
13 News asked if his department should be leading the way.
“If Homeland Security will work with us, we’re happy to provide a centralized source of information,” Horne said. “But Homeland Security are the ones that are real experts at that. So they need to be able to work with me.”
13 News asked the Arizona Department of Homeland Security if that’s an option.
“I’ll say those efforts are already happening,” said Ryan Murray, Deputy Director of Homeland Security’s Cyber Command.
He explained there’s been a cybersecurity program in place for years, but when hackers crippled TUSD, it sent a shockwave throughout the entire education sector.
He’s now working with some of the largest districts, including TUSD.
“Tucson Unified has been heavily engaged with us and our team,” Murray said. “We’re working very closely with them to deploy all of the tools and services we provide.”
Murray confirmed TUSD reached out to AZHS after the cyberattack.
He said it’ll be a heavy lift to get all the districts up to speed, but his department is working on it.
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