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The Tragic Fallout From a School District’s Ransomware Breach

Security Roundup The Tragic Fallout From a School Districts Ransomware Breach GettyImages 1136538359

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Ransomware gangs have long sought pain points where their extortion demands have the greatest leverage. Now an investigation from NBC News has made clear what that merciless business model looks like when it targets kids: One ransomware group’s giant leak of sensitive files from the Minneapolis school system exposes thousands of children at their most vulnerable, complete with behavioral and psychological reports on individual students and highly sensitive documentation of cases where they’ve allegedly been abused by teachers and staff.

We’ll get to that. But first, WIRED contributor Kim Zetter broke the news this week that the Russian hackers who carried out the notorious SolarWinds espionage operation were detected in the US Department of Justice’s network six months earlier than previously reported—but the DOJ didn’t realize the full scale of the hacking campaign that would later be revealed. 

Meanwhile, WIRED reporter Lily Hay Newman was at the RSA cybersecurity conference in San Francisco, where she brought us stories of how security researchers disrupted the operators of the Gootloader malware who sold access to victims’ networks to ransomware groups and other cybercriminals, and how Google Cloud partnered with Intel to hunt for and fix serious security vulnerabilities that underlie critical cloud servers. She also captured a warning in a talk from NSA cybersecurity director Rob Joyce, who told the cybersecurity industry to “buckle up” and prepare for big changes to come from AI tools like ChatGPT, which will no doubt be wielded by both attackers and defenders alike.

On that same looming AI issue, we looked at how the deepfakes enabled by tools like ChatGPT, Midjourney, DALL-E, and StableDiffusion will have far-reaching political consequences. We examined a newly introduced US bill that would ban kids under the age of 13 from joining social media. We tried out the new feature in Google’s Authenticator App that allows you to back up your two-factor codes to a Google account in case you lose your 2FA device. And we opined—well, ranted—on the ever-growing sprawl of silly names that the cybersecurity industry gives to hacker groups.

But that’s not all. Each week, we round up the news we didn’t report in-depth ourselves. Click on the headlines to read the full stories. And stay safe out there.

What happens when a school system is targeted by a ransomware group, refuses to pay, and thus gets their stolen data dumped wholesale onto the dark web? Well, it’s even worse than it sounds, as NBC’s Kevin Collier found this week when he dug through portions of a trove of 200,000 files leaked online after the Minneapolis public school system was hit by hackers earlier this year. 

The leaked files include detailed dossiers linking children by name, birth date, and address to a laundry list of highly private information: their special needs, their psychological profiles and behavioral analyses, their medications, the results of intelligence tests, and which kids’ parents have divorced, among many other sensitive secrets. In some cases, the files even note which children have been victims of alleged abuse by school teachers or staff. The hackers also took special pains to publicly promote their toxic dump of children’s information, with links posted to social media sites and a video showing off the files and instructing viewers how to download them.

The Minneapolis school system is offering free credit monitoring to parents and children affected by the data dump. But given the radioactive nature of the personal information released by the hackers, identity fraud may be the least of their victims’ worries.

In a rare declassified disclosure at a panel at this week’s RSA Conference, General William Hartman revealed that US Cyber Command had disrupted an Iranian hacking operation that targeted a local elections website ahead of the 2020 election. According to Hartman, who leads Cyber Command’s National Mission Force, the intrusion couldn’t have affected actual vote counts or voting machines, but—had Cyber Command’s own hackers not kiboshed the operation—might have potentially been used to post false results as part of a disinformation effort. 

Hartman named the Iranian hackers as a group known as Pioneer Kitten, also sometimes referred to as UNC757 or Parisite, but didn’t name the specific elections website that they targeted. Hartman added that the hacking operation was found thanks to Cyber Command’s Hunt Forward operations, in which it hacks foreign networks to preemptively discover and disrupt adversaries who target the US.

Following a two-year investigation, The Guardian this week published a harrowing exposé on Facebook and Instagram’s use as hunting grounds for child predators, many of whom traffic in children as sexual abuse victims for money on the two social media services. Despite the claims of the services’ parent company Meta that it’s closely monitoring its services for child sexual abuse materials or sexual trafficking, The Guardian found horrific cases of children whose accounts were hijacked by traffickers and used to advertise them for sexual victimization. 

One prosecutor who spoke to The Guardian said that he’d seen child trafficking crimes on social media sites increase by about 30 percent each year from 2019 to 2022. Many of the victims were as young as 11 or 12 years old, and most were Black, Latinx, or LGBTQ+.

A group of hackers has been taking over AT&T email accounts—the telecom provider runs email domains including att.net, sbcglobal.net, bellsouth.net—to hack their cryptocurrency wallets, TechCrunch reports. 

A tipster tells TechCrunch that the hackers have access to a part of AT&T’s internal network that allows them to generate “mail keys” that are used to offer access to an email inbox via email applications like Thunderbird or Outlook. The hackers then use that access to reset the victims’ passwords on cryptocurrency wallet services like Gemini and Coinbase, and, according to TechCrunch’s source, have already amassed between $10 million and $15 million in stolen crypto, though TechCrunch couldn’t verify those numbers.

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