Palm Beach District IT Chief Issues Dare to Hackers

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The Palm Beach County (Florida) School District has spent more than $1.5 million in the last year to upgrade security on its administrative network after a high school student hacked into the system to change grades and attendance records.

The Palm Beach Post reported that since the student's April 2006 arrest, the district has experienced no major security threats. In fact, district IT security administrators are so confident in their security measures that they have offered a free wireless router for anyone who could crack the system.

"We had people trying to hack in from China," Bob LaRocca, the IT security chief, told the Post. "Some days we got thousands of hits. The prize is still sitting in my office."

That's impressive, given the intensity of the siege. The Post reported that every day the computer network gets 16,000 attacks; every week, district employees get 100,000 e-mails, 80 percent of which are spam or potentially dangerous.

The security build-up was motivated when a student used employee passwords to change his friends' grades, erase suspensions and give himself credit for classes he never took, the Post reported. The student avoided jail by deferring prosecution after agreeing to complete a pretrial intervention program, undergoing state supervision and paying a $5,000 fine.

Since the incident, the district has spent more than $1.5 million in security upgrades and now requires employees to change passwords every 60 days. Previously, passwords never had to be changed. Individual schools are also starting to hire dedicated computer experts.

To prevent wireless sniffing, the district is spending about $500,000 to purchase a package of sensors for every school and district building which will pinpoint the location of the sniffers and alert police. The technology will also encrypt the data so sniffers can't understand it.

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About the Author

Paul McCloskey is contributing editor of Syllabus.

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