With many classes moving online this fall, schools are more vulnerable than ever to cyber attacks. That was the case at a Miami school district this week, where a hacker crippled online classes at the start of the work day. Authorities have since arrested a teen in the school cyber attack — but some say it’s just the tip of the iceberg.
An Easily Launched Attack
The student launched the attack on Monday, September 31, just as Miami-Dade County Public Schools (M-DCPS) were beginning the new year. Superintendent Alberto Carvalho told NBC 6 that the district came under a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack.
A DDoS attack works by targeting a site with a network of online devices, known as a botnet. By commanding the devices to access a specific website all at once, hackers can overwhelm the site’s servers, rendering it inaccessible.
DDoS attacks are relatively easy to execute, a school cyber security expert told NBC 6.
“Certainly it doesn’t suggest that [the suspect] is a particularly sophisticated cyber attacker,” the expert said.
Nevertheless, the attack was effective in crippling the district’s online learning sites. According to NBC, nearly 200,000 students in the district were shut out of classes thanks to the attack.
“These sorts of tools are actually very prevalent, and they can be very effective,” the security expert said.
Hunting a Teen Hacker
The attack sparked an investigation involving the FBI, Secret Service and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE).
Crucially, the suspect neglected to hide their IP address, which functions as a sort of ID for internet users. Authorities were able to track the address to a specific home, where they found the teen hacker. Sixteen-year-old David Oliveros reportedly admitted to launching the attack when confronted by police.
“I commend our detectives, the FBI, Secret Service and FDLE for their tireless efforts to pursue those responsible for these attacks,” Carvalho said in a statement. “It is disheartening that one of our own students has admitted to intentionally causing this kind of disruption. However, I am confident that the M-DCPS family will continue to show its resilience and commitment to education in the face of adversity.”
The 16-year-old attacker is now facing charges of computer use in an attempt to defraud and interfere with an educational institution, the district said. If convicted, the suspect reportedly faces up to five years in prison.
Meanwhile, M-DCPS Police Chief Edwin Lopez warned that more attacks could follow.
“We believe, based on our investigation, that other attackers are out there,” Lopez said in a statement. “We will not rest until every one of them is caught and brought to justice. Cyber attacks are serious crimes, which have far-reaching negative impacts. Our message to anyone thinking of attempting a criminal act like this is to think twice. We will find you.”