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Cyber Attack Suspected in Hartnell College Network Outage

The public community college in California shut down its servers Sunday morning after detecting suspicious activity on its network, which it continues to investigate while slowly bringing the network back online.

Hartnell Community College
The Hartnell Community College District governing board met Wednesday to discuss a network outage at the college.
Hartnell College/Monterey Herald/TNS
(TNS) — Hartnell College held an emergency meeting of its governing board Wednesday night to discuss the school’s ongoing network outage in response to a potential cybersecurity threat.

Hartnell Vice President of Technology Chelsy Pham explained that the college’s security system picked up on suspicious activity at around 6 a.m. Sunday, prompting the college to take precautionary measures and shut down its servers at around 8 a.m.

Pham said the system picked up high levels of activity on the network — unusual for a Sunday morning.

“When we see high activities, typically it’s classes going on, but for a Sunday morning at 7, that’s suspicious,” Pham explained. “So our system actually picked up (on it) and told us, ‘Hey, there’s something going on, you might want to check it out.’ ”

Pham said the college is working on slowly bringing the network back online. The school’s online teaching platform, Canvas, is up and running so classes haven’t been disrupted, although the school has had to modify some lab and classroom situations.

Currently, the college’s phone system is still down, but Pham said emails and text notifications are working.

“We are restoring our system slowly and safely,” Hartnell President Michael Gutierrez said. “But for the most part, people have really pivoted quite quickly to this disruption. And I have to say that I’m pretty proud of our college.”

Pham said the college is taking extra precautions to bring the system fully back online and doesn’t have a timeline for when the network will be fully operational again.

“We’re being very, very careful,” she said. “We want to make sure it’s secure and safe so we’re taking very cautious steps to do that.”

She said Hartnell is working with the Federal Bureau of Investigation to conduct an investigation into whether the incident was a cyber attack.

This is the first time Hartnell College has experienced an incident like this, according to Pham and Gutierrez. But Hartnell’s recent outage is the latest in a string of several California schools forced to shut down systems in response to potential cybersecurity threats.

Most recently, the Los Angeles Unified School District — which includes nearly 600,000 students and 70,000 employees — was struck with a cyber attack over Labor Day weekend.

The College of the Desert in Palm Springs also fell victim to a malware attack on July 4 and a Sacramento area community college, Sierra College, was hit by a cyber attack in late August.

Such attacks have become a growing threat to U.S. schools as the COVID-19 pandemic forced colleges and school districts to rely on technology to instruct students.

In 2020, the FBI warned K-12 institutions of ransomware attacks and data breaches continuing through the 2020-2021 school year. According to Multi-State Information Sharing and Analysis Center’s data, 57 percent of all ransomware incidents reported to the agency in August and September involved K-12 schools, up from 28 percent from January through July.

Hartnell’s emergency governing board meeting discussed the ongoing incident in its closed session — meaning the public was not able to attend — but Gutierrez said the college is working on a statement to send out in the next few days.

Until then, the college will continue to investigate and slowly bring systems back online.

“I think what allows us to be patient is just learning from other colleges what not to do,” Gutierrez explained. “And then also, our classes have been ongoing. We’ve not had interruption with that, so it allows us to exhibit patience.”

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