The School Department’s internal computer network has been shut down since Aug. 5 as the city’s information technology experts and a computer consulting firm investigate an apparent infiltration by potentially malicious software, or malware.
Network connectivity at Thompson Middle School and the Rogers High School campus was suspended after the suspected malware was discovered on a School Department computer last week, according to a statement issued by Tom Shevlin, the city’s information officer. School Department personnel first identified the suspected malware on July 29 and asked the city’s IT department for help.
On Aug. 5, teachers and administrators preparing for the start of the school year were relocated to Pell Elementary School while security upgrades were put in place. The state police, which has a task force devoted to investigating information systems emergencies, was notified.
“At this point, the issue appears to be isolated to the Newport Public Schools network, and has not affected the city’s operations in any way,” said City Manager Joseph J. Nicholson Jr. “We also do not believe that any sensitive student or financial information has been compromised.”
On Aug. 7, Shevlin said administration personnel and teachers continued to work at Pell, where the network is considered secure.
“We’re hoping to get them out of there as soon as possible,” he said.
Shevlin said the city would not disclose information about how and where the malware was detected, in order to avoid giving information to hackers in case the incident was an attack. He said officials are uncertain whether it was malicious or accidental.
“We don’t know whether there were any long-term effects,” Shevlin said.
The IT department is working with the city’s consultant, Custom Computer Specialists of Warwick. “They’re going through it bit by bit to make sure the network is secure,” Shevlin said.
“It’s really good that this happened in the summer, when very few people are using the network,” he said. “Our goal is that when kids come to school, the network is safe and secure, even more secure than it was.”
Malware attacks against public computer networks are increasingly common. In July, the Coventry Public Schools system was infected and sensitive files were compromised, NBC 10 reported.
In June 2018, several hundred computers at three state agencies, the departments of Children, Youth and Families, Human Services, and Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals, were affected by malware, resulting in minor disruptions, according to several published reports.
“These so-called ransomware attacks are typically carried out through e-mail phishing operations and can have significant impacts on governmental operations,” the city’s statement said.