Virus Requires Ransom to Unlock School District Data

Federal and state investigators are helping a South Carolina district figure out what to do.

Claire Byun, The Sun News (Myrtle Beach, S.C.) / February 11, 2016 0

(TNS)  — Horry County Schools is working with state and federal investigators to determine exactly what to do about a computer virus that affected several servers across the district.

The virus doesn't steal any data from the computers, so no student, parent or school records were breached, according to district spokeswoman Teal Harding. The virus uses a high-level encryption to lock up data, then requires a key — with a monetary ransom — to unlock the data.

While the virus didn't disable any classes, Harding said, it did prevent some students from using the Internet for about a day.

"Their programs and applications still worked, so teachers just had to resort to more traditional methods of teaching," she said.

Some online applications, such as PowerSchool, are still deactivated. Parents will be alerted when everything is back up and running, Harding said.

The virus was discovered Monday morning, and the district proactively shut down servers to prevent the virus from spreading, Harding said. District staff are working on rebooting the computers, and everything is expected to be fully restored by next week, she said.

The virus came from another country, which is why state and federal investigators are involved, Harding said. It jumped into the district's computers through an old project management software that now houses project archives.

"We don't even use that software anymore," Harding said.

Once all the servers are back up, district staff must clean and restore data that's been encrypted. If the data has been backed up on a server, staff can restore it to computers, but those reboots are time-consuming and work intensive. It may just be more cost-effective to pay the "ransom" to restore data than for staff to manually restore everything, Harding said.

"Each school has servers, there's server hubs that are backups around the district, and some of this has to be manually brought back up one layer at a time," she said.

District staff are in discussions with investigators to determine whether or not to pay the "ransom," Harding said, and the amount of information that's already backed up is also a factor. If the district has to shell out to restore everything, it most likely will be between $7,000 to $8,000, she said.

Within this week and through next week, everything should be fully restored. There will be delays through next week on some features, but the team is slowly adding things.

"It's a lot of money, but between overtime and the team you're having to build, that cost pales in comparison," Harding said.

For now, teachers can still use some technology that was not infected by the virus. Some instructors are adjusting their lessons based on the situation, but Harding said Horry County teachers are creative and resilient.

"Teachers are some of the most adaptive people in the world," Harding said.

©2016 The Sun News (Myrtle Beach, S.C.), distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.