[ISN] Schools scramble to safeguard computer systems

From: InfoSec News (isn@private)
Date: Sun Apr 30 2006 - 22:41:52 PDT


By Maria Sacchetti
Globe Staff
April 29, 2006

Private industry long ago adopted safeguards against hacking, but 
public schools, which just began putting student records online in 
recent years, are only starting to recognize their vulnerability.

The allegations that a student gained access to a teacher's computer 
at Boston Latin School and saw tests and student records apparently 
took officials by surprise. Boston Public Schools had begun to talk 
about improving computer security at all schools before the alleged 
incident, but immediately tightened security afterward.

''For lack of a better term, this is sort of a test case to figure out 
where security breaches might be," said Jonathan Palumbo, a school 
system spokesman.

Lexington High officials are debating whether to e-mail report cards 
to parents, weighing the convenience against the security risks. 
Brookline High forced teachers to make their passwords tougher to 
guess this year after students broke into the computer system to 
change grades.

''You can't assume that you're smarter than the kids about computers," 
said Michael Frantz, assistant headmaster at Brookline High. ''It 
certainly is a wake-up call. . . . This kind of thing can really 
happen to us."

Decades ago, public schools were untroubled with computer security. 
But now 95 percent of the state's classrooms are wired for the 
Internet, according to the state Department of Education. Teachers 
store grades on the Internet. Clerks track student absences and 
tardiness online. Some even share that with parents: letting them 
check online to make sure their child went to school or to monitor 
their grades.

A year ago, Lexington High investigated a student on allegations that 
he altered his attendance records, which had been posted online. The 
school now wants to e-mail report cards, but officials said they are 
not sure whether the school has protected itself well enough against 

''I really worry about that. We're certainly behind," said Bill Cole, 
a dean at the school. ''We definitely have a population here that 
would see it as a challenge here and break in."

This school year, Brookline High officials suspended the two students 
it caught breaking into the computer system and changing grades.

''You can't make a guarantee that it wouldn't happen again," Frantz 
said. ''We're more careful, and things are tighter than they were. I 
think it would be a lot more difficult for it to happen."

Charlie Lyons, superintendent and director at Shawsheen Valley 
Technical High School, in Billerica, said he spends $50,000 a year on 
computer updates and security. He also hired a director of computer 
services because the school has nearly 700 computers.

''There's no system that's unbreakable. There's going to be some kid 
from MIT that's probably going to . . . be able to break into any 
system in the world," Lyons said.

Francis Cahill, who taught Latin at Boston Latin School for 33 years 
before retiring in June 2005, said more teachers who used to keep 
grades on paper and tests in files are relying on computers.

Students are ''a lot more sophisticated than a lot of the teachers," 
said Cahill, who had never heard of a student breaking into the 
school's computer system during his time at Latin. ''Kids are always 
looking for a leg up no matter what school they're in. It doesn't 
surprise me at all.

''I would guess that in any kind of school where kids are trying to 
get into college, the same kind of thing could happen."

Tracy Jan of the Globe staff contributed to this report.  
 Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company

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