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Hacker disrupts video session with Hoosac Valley sixth graders

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By Jenn Smith

The Berkshire Eagle

CHESHIRE — A video meeting with Hoosac Valley Middle School students was abruptly cut off Monday after a hacker apparently broke into the session.

The disruption came during a remote check-in with sixth graders on the Zoom platform, and is not believed to be caused by an invited participant, according to Superintendent Aaron Dean.

The teacher "heard some inappropriate noises" and then quickly shut down the meeting as an unsolicited image started to materialize onto the video feed, Dean said.

The district reported the incident to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, as hijacking a video conference could be prosecuted as a federal offense.

"While in a Zoom session with students, an individual entered the session and attempted to post pornography. The teacher ended the session abruptly once she realized what was occurring," Dean wrote in the report, filed Tuesday. 

The superintendent said the image was blurred but presumed to be genitalia.

Dean credited the teacher for responding quickly to shut down the program and immediately reporting the incident to the principal and district administration. Dean, in turn, then debriefed the situation with the school's teaching team and said "they were very shaken up by the whole thing."

"Teachers have contacted families to make sure everybody was OK and we are continuing to investigate," the superintendent said.

As schools, businesses and other organizations adjust to the COVID-19 pandemic, many have shifted to communicating remotely using video conference platforms like Zoom, prompting a hacking phenomenon known as "Zoom-bombing." In a typically attack, an unwanted perpetrator tries to disrupt an online conference or class by hacking in and displaying images and language that may be pornographic, hateful or threatening in nature.

As of March 30, the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center has received and reviewed more than 1,200 complaints related to COVID-19 scams involving cyber actors. Because of this, school districts across the country have begun to ban the use of Zoom.

Dean said it was "discouraging" that an individual or group of people would want to "undermine education" through such a diversion.

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Zoom in particular was marketed to schools as a helpful tool at the start of the pandemic, waiving its usual connection fees for K-12 institutions.

Dean said his faculty and staff have spent the past couple of weeks establishing a remote learning plan, which included the use of Zoom as well as Google Classroom among other digital tools and strategies.

"We felt pretty good with the advisory that we had gotten on how to use this and we were doing what we were supposed to with this," Dean said. This included requiring a password to enter the meeting, and sharing on the district's website protocols and disclaimers about using video conferencing programs.

Still, the alleged hacker found a way to hijack the class meeting.

Immediately after it was shut down, the administration made the decision to no longer use Zoom as a video conferencing tool, and notified staff, students and families.

In a post to the district's Facebook page, Dean wrote: "Due to an incident with Zoom, we are no longer going to utilize that platform for our remote learning. I apologize to those that were impacted in this morning's session. Staff were aware of advisories and took all the recommended steps to provide security, but unfortunately an incident still occurred. We are going to transition all conferencing to the Google platform moving forward for the safety and security of all involved. As we venture into this remote learning platform we will continue to adjust and do what is best for kids. Again, I'm sorry to those that were impacted today."

The superintendent said that while Zoom was more user-friendly, the Google suite seems to offer more security.

Dean said the district's teachers and staff will continue to closely monitor its remote learning interactions and systems, while continuing to roll out devices and lessons to students and families. More than 200 devices have already been issued on loan for remote learning. Registration will continue through Wednesday.

While the sixth grade meeting was shut down on Monday, remote learning continues in accordance with the district's plan.

Dean said the multifaceted plan includes having instructional leadership teams at all school levels, with teachers reaching out to families and providing support on how to navigate these new procedures. Teachers have also worked on building learning plans for students who cannot access or utilize digital devices.

He said students and families can do their part to protect themselves and others by watching for suspicious activity and reporting any disruptive incidents, whether it be hacking or cyberbullying.

"Families should check in and make sure that [students are] using these devices and resources in the manner that they were supposed to be used," Dean said.

"I hope that because we had this thing on day one, it doesn't cast a black cloud over the excellent work teachers have been doing," he said. "There's a lot of creativity at work and teachers have really stepped up to do a lot. What we've built is something to be proud of given the short time we've had."

Jenn Smith can be reached at jsmith@berkshireeagle.com.


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