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Cyberattack in Albuquerque Latest to Target Public Schools

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When the superintendent of Albuquerque Public Schools announced earlier this week a cyberattack would lead to the cancellation of classes for around 75,000 students, he noted that the district’s technology department had been fending off attacks “for the last few weeks.”

Albuquerque is not alone, as five school districts in the state have suffered major cyberattacks in the past two years, including one district that’s still wrestling with a cyberattack that hit just after Christmas.

But it’s the first reporting a cyberattack that required cancellation of classes, all the more disruptive as schools try to keep in-person learning going during the pandemic.

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“If it seems I’ve come into your homes a lot in the past couple of years to share difficult news, you’re right. And here I am again,” Superintendent Scott Elder said in a video address Thursday. “We find ourselves facing yet another challenge.”

The closures, on Thursday and Friday, affect approximately one in five New Mexico schoolchildren, in what is the country’s 35th largest school district by enrollment, according to 2019 data from the National Center for Education Statistics. The district was one of the last in the state to reopen last year as vaccines became available.

The small town of Truth or Consequences discovered a cyberattack on December 28 and still hasn’t gained control of its computer systems.

“We’re not out of the woods yet,” said Mike Torres, the information technology director of the school system in Truth or Consequences, a small town in central New Mexico.

The attack has not been previously reported. It came when students were on vacation, allowing time to make contingency plans before students returned. Torres says that while the attack “made computer systems unavailable,” disruption has been minimal.

That wasn’t the case in Albuquerque, where teachers discovered Wednesday morning that they were locked out of the student information database that tracks attendance, records emergency contacts for students, and tracks which adults are allowed to pick up which students at the end of the school day.

In 2019, Las Cruces Public Schools also suffered an attack on their student information database, after a phishing attack lured one or more employees to click a malicious link in an email months before, recalls Matt Dawkins, that district’s information technology director.

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After lurking and scoping out the district’s system, a hacker or hackers carried out ransomware attack. Data on many school computers, starting with the student database, was locked up in an encryption. A ransom was demanded in exchange for the key.

“It’s kind of like when your house gets robbed you know? That feeling of being violated,” said Dawkins, in an interview Thursday, as his school went under lockdown due to an unrelated police call a mile away.

The school didn’t pay the ransom, and eventually found a way to reset its data systems to the state they were in the day before the attack. But it required months of hands on work, and extra expenses for temporary Wi-Fi hotspots, and some new computers. Insurance covered much of the cost of the attack.

In the past two years, at least four other New Mexico schools have been hit by costly cyberattacks, according to Patrick Sandoval, interim director of the New Mexico Public School Insurance Authority, which insures all districts in New Mexico except for Albuquerque.

Targets across the US in 2021 included universities, hospitals, and a major fuel pipeline. Data on the number of attacks and their cost are difficult to track, but the FBI’s 2020 annual report on cyberattacks said around $4.1 billion (roughly Rs. 30498.465 crore) in damages was reported by institutions across the country that year.

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Dawkins added if Albuquerque faces a ransomware situation, which hasn’t been confirmed, it might face a more complex attack. Instead of holding information hostage, ransomware attacks now threaten to sell data to the highest bidder online. So the student data in Albuquerque might not just be locked up, Dawkins said, but at risk of being shared with identity thieves and other bad actors.

Albuquerque Public Schools hasn’t said if the cyberattack they face is a ransomware attack, only that their student information database was “compromised,” and that it’s working with law enforcement and contractors to limit the damage.

Whatever the cause, they face a similar problem as Las Cruces faced in the days following the attack.

The database used to track attendance and other students was out of commission. It also realised that laptops needed to be quarantined and taken out of service, forcing teachers to work offline.

“Immediately our instructional department pivoted with pen and paper, you know, kind of old fashioned sort of teaching so our print shop was printing materials. Teachers were able to adapt very quickly,” Dawkins said.

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Albuquerque Public School officials have not elaborate on the decision to close schools and didn’t respond to requests Thursday about why a paper system was not possible.

The decision to continue classes in Las Cruces came at a cost. Dawkins said that it probably took longer to get the school’s thousands of computers wiped and reset while teachers and administrators were working normal hours, and they had to live without technology for weeks and weeks.

In January 2020, the district’s computers were running again and in good time, too — the pandemic forced teachers and students into remote learning just a few months later.


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Best Buy Trims Jobs After It Cuts Sales and Profit Forecast Citing Surging Inflation

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Best Buy, the nation’s largest consumer electronics chain, is trimming jobs in an effort to adjust to new changes in consumer behaviour as the virus wanes.

Best Buy declined to say how many jobs it was cutting, but The Wall Street Journal, which was first to report the news, estimated it involved hundreds of jobs at the store level.

“We’re always evaluating and evolving our teams to make sure we’re serving our customers,” Best Buy said in a statement emailed to The Associated Press. ‘With an ever-changing macroeconomic environment, including customers shopping more digitally than ever, we have made adjustments to our teams that include eliminating a small number of roles.”

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The job cuts come after Best Buy reduced its annual sales and profit forecast late last month, citing surging inflation that has dampened consumer spending on gadgets. The Minneapolis-based company echoed Walmart, which a few days before cut its profit outlook. The nation’s largest retailer said that higher prices on basic necessities are forcing shoppers to cut back on discretionary items .

Walmart also announced earlier this month that it was cutting jobs at its corporate headquarters as part of a restructuring effort.

Still, the latest snapshot on the overall US job market remains strong even as inflation continues to rage and affect all types of businesses. Last week, the government reported that unemployment dropped another notch, from 3.6 percent to 3.5 percent, matching the more than 50-year low reached just before the pandemic took hold. The economy has now gained back all 22 million jobs lost in March and April 2020 when COVID-19 hit the US.

Best Buy said last month it now expects this year’s sales at stores opened at least a year to be down 11 percent, much steeper than the 3 percent to 6 percent drop it originally forecast in May.

For Best Buy’s fiscal second quarter, it expects comparable sales to be down 13 percent. Still, revenue for the quarter should be roughly 7.5 percent higher than the second quarter of 2020, it said.

Best Buy is slated to report its quarterly results on August 30.


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US Regulator to Investigate Deaths of Amazon Workers in New Jersey: Details

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Federal work-safety investigators are looking into the death of an Amazon worker and an injury that potentially led to the death of another employee, adding to a probe already underway following a third fatality during the company’s annual Prime Day shopping event in mid-July.All three Amazon workers died within the past month and were employed at company facilities in New Jersey.

The new Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) investigations are putting fresh scrutiny on Amazon’s injury rates and workplace-safety procedures, which have long been criticized by labor and safety advocates as inadequate.

Department of Labor spokesperson Denisha Braxton confirmed Thursday that the most-recent fatality took place last week at an Amazon facility in Monroe Township, about 20 miles (35 kilometers) northeast of Trenton. The second probe is looking into a July 24 accident at an Amazon facility in Robbinsville. The worker involved in that accident died three days later, according to Braxton.

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In a statement, Robbinsville Police Chief Michael Polaski said police responded to the warehouse, called PNE5, on July 24 after receiving a report that a worker fell from a three-foot (one-meter) ladder and struck his head.

Polaski said the worker was conscious and alert when police arrived. But police were told CPR was conducted on the person by other workers prior to their arrival, he said. The person was transported to a hospital and OSHA was notified of the incident on the same day, he added.

Police in Monroe Township didn’t immediately reply for a request for comment on the incident there.

The two most recent deaths were first reported by the USA Today Network.

OSHA officials declined to provide additional information about any of the deaths, citing the open investigations. The agency has up to six month to complete each probe.

Sam Stephenson, a spokesperson for Seattle-based Amazon, said in a statement the company was “deeply saddened by the passing of our colleagues and offer our condolences to their family and friends.”

“Our investigations are ongoing and we’re cooperating with OSHA, which is conducting its own reviews of the events, as it often does in these situations,” Stephenson said.

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Last month, OSHA launched another investigation into a worker fatality at an Amazon warehouse in the New Jersey town of Carteret during the company’s Prime Day shopping event, which turned out to be the biggest in the company’s history. Federal officials haven’t released additional details about the death, but news reports have identified the worker as 42-year-old Rafael Reynaldo Mota Frias.

A spokesperson for Amazon said the company’s internal investigation into the Carteret death shows it “was not a work-related incident, and instead was related to a personal medical condition.”

“OSHA is currently investigating the incident, and, based upon the evidence currently available to us, we fully expect that it will reach the same conclusion,” the spokesperson said.

News of the deaths comes amid broader scrutiny into the company’s operations. In late July, OSHA officials inspected Amazon facilities in New York, Illinois and Florida after receiving referrals alleging health and safety violations from the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York. The civil division of the U.S. attorney’s office is also investigating safety hazards at Amazon warehouses and “fraudulent conduct designed to hide injuries from OSHA and others,” according to a spokesperson for the office.


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US FTC Considering New Rules to Rein in Tech Firms' Collection of Personal Data, Protect Privacy

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Whether it’s the fitness tracker on your wrist, the “smart” home appliances in your house or the latest kids’ fad going viral in online videos, they all produce a trove of personal data for big tech companies.

How that data is being used and protected has led to growing public concern and officials’ outrage. And now federal regulators are looking at drafting rules to crack down on what they call harmful commercial surveillance and lax data security.

The Federal Trade Commission announced the initiative Thursday, seeking public comment on the effects of companies’ data collection and the potential benefit of new rules to protect consumers’ privacy.

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The FTC defines commercial surveillance as “the business of collecting, analyzing and profiting from information about people.”

In Congress, bipartisan condemnation of the data power of Meta — the parent of Facebook and Instagram — Google and other tech giants that have earned riches by aggregating consumer information used by online advertisers, has brought national data privacy legislation to its closest point ever to passage.

Around the country, parents’ concern has deepened over the impact of social media on children. Frances Haugen, a former Facebook data scientist, stunned Congress and the public last fall when she exposed internal company research showing apparent serious harm to some teens from Instagram. Those revelations were followed by senators grilling executives from YouTube, TikTok and Snapchat about what they’re doing to ensure young users’ safety in the wake of suicides and other harms to teens attributed by their parents to their usage of the platforms.

As concerns rise, social media platforms from Snapchat to TikTok to Instagram are adding new features they say will make their services safer and more age appropriate. But the changes rarely address the algorithms pushing endless content that can drag anyone, not just teens, into harmful rabbit holes.

The Democratic members of the FTC said Thursday it’s imperative for Congress to pass a new law, but that the agency was taking action in the meantime by issuing the notice of proposed rules.

“Mass surveillance has heightened the risks and stakes of data breaches, deception, manipulation and other abuses,” the FTC said.

Agency officials noted that the FTC has brought hundreds of enforcement actions against companies over the last two decades for violations of privacy and data security. They included cases involving the sharing of health-related data with third parties, the collection and sharing of sensitive TV viewing data for targeted advertising, and failure to put in adequate security measures to protect sensitive data such as Social Security numbers.

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However, the officials said, the FTC’s ability to deter illegal conduct is limited because it generally lacks authority to seek financial penalties for initial violations of law. That could change if the comprehensive privacy legislation were to clear Congress.

“Firms now collect personal data on individuals at a massive scale and in a stunning array of contexts,” FTC Chair Lina Khan said in an online news conference. “Our goal today is to begin building a robust public record to inform whether the FTC should issue rules to address commercial surveillance and data security practices, and what those rules should potentially look like.”

“We are very, very eager to hear from the public,” Khan said.

Topics of interest could include how companies use algorithms and automated systems to analyze the information they collect, and the potential effects of various data practices.

Khan, who was an outspoken critic of Big Tech as a law professor, was appointed by President Joe Biden last year to head the FTC — an independent agency that polices competition and consumer protection as well as digital privacy.

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The rulemaking proposal was adopted in a 3-2 vote by the five FTC commissioners. Khan and the other two Democrats voted to issue it, while the two Republicans opposed it.

On Tuesday, Snapchat introduced new parental controls in what it calls the “Family Center” — a tool that lets parents see who their teens are messaging, though not the content of the messages themselves. Both parents and their children have to opt into the service.


How is Alexa faring in India? We discuss this on Orbital, the Gadgets 360 podcast. Orbital is available on Spotify, Gaana, JioSaavn, Google Podcasts, Apple Podcasts, Amazon Music and wherever you get your podcasts.

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