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Texas School District Pays Hackers to Get Phones, Email Back

Judson Independent School District has paid an undisclosed amount to regain access to its network and communications after a ransomware incident last month took them offline. Authorities are still investigating.

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(TNS) — The Judson Independent School District paid an undisclosed amount to hackers to at least partially resolve a ransomware attack that has hobbled the district since June 17.

The attack shut down phones, e-mail and computers for the district, which has about 26,600 students and staff members across 30 campuses on the Northeast Side. Officials haven’t said whether personal data was breached.

District spokeswoman Nicole Taguinod confirmed a ransom was paid but declined to elaborate on when, how or how much. The district regained access to its phone and e-mail systems Monday, she said. It was unclear Tuesday whether the district’s computer systems were fully operational.

Ransomware is a type of software designed to block access to files and systems, rendering them unusable to the owner. The attackers then request a ransom, usually in cryptocurrency because it’s difficult to trace, in exchange for releasing the data and systems.

The FBI has advised against paying ransoms, mainly because doing so doesn’t guarantee recovery of locked data and could embolden hackers to make more such attacks.

In a statement Tuesday afternoon, the district acknowledged the payment and said the service “restoration was achieved through the acceleration of key upgrades to reinforce the security of our systems in preparation for the 2021-22 school year.”

Judson officials did not disclose whether the district has cyber insurance to mitigate costs of such an attack. Last year, Texas school districts hit with such attacks paid from $50,000 to $2.3 million in ransom to hackers.

Athens ISD outside Dallas doled out $50,000, Sheldon ISD near Houston paid $207,000 and Manor ISD near Austin handed over $2.3 million. All three districts are significantly smaller than Judson ISD.

In addition to the cancellation of a day of summer school classes for about 700 high school students, the Judson breach forced the district to establish alternate means of communication via a call center, Wi-Fi hotspots and commercial e-mail services.

The district hired BlueVoyant, a New York cybersecurity company that’s been in business since 2017, to help resolve the situation, Taguinod said.

BlueVoyant’s website says it provides “expert handling of complex data breaches,” with an “investigative approach ... built on decades of FBI Cyber and private sector experience.”

“We continue to work with our team of data privacy professionals and local, state and federal law enforcement as the ransomware attack remains an ongoing and active investigation,” Taguinod said in an e-mail.

BlueVoyant, the FBI and Judson ISD Police Department declined to comment.

Judson is set to begin the 2021-2022 school year Aug. 16.

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