Lessons from a Ransomware Attack

This isn’t my usual kind of blog. It’s about how our school responded to a ransomware attack and what we learned. As it turns out, not everyone talks about this so malware attacks on schools may be more of a problem than many of us realise. 

We first noticed attack on The morning of 17th July when we found that several documents on our fileserver were encypted. It seemed at first that only some files on one server were affected, then it became apparent that files on another were also encrypted. We decided to shut down all our servers to halt any spread of an infection. This of course meant that the school had no ICT facility: teachers had no acesss to lesson resources, and there was no access to our information management system.

Our excellent ICT team identified the ramsomware as ‘.Aleta’ and discovered that the infection had occurred at around 6.30am on the previous Saturday, 15th July on a server used by all the schools in our academy group, despite our use of security software. The finance serWe later learned from the police that this type of malware is most frequently spread by remote desktop access protocols.  Our ICT team worked all that day and the next to wipe the system clean and restore files from a full backup made on Friday 14th July. As a result we were only without ICT for a day, although some facilities were only restored on the second day. 

We warned the schools in our Multi-Academy Company and other local schools. We weren’t using email, so we did it the old fashioned way, by phone. It was quite hard to talk to a human being at some schools!  We reported the incident to Thames Valley Police who also urged us to report it to Action Fraud, who coordinate with the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau. In reporting this attack, I learned from the police that not everyone does so, or chooses to report the details to Action Fraud. I can only speculate as to why this is – perhaps they don’t want adverse publicity, or to indicate that there may have been a vulnerability in their systems. Presumably a proportion of victims pay, or why would such attacks continue?  It seemed to us that adding our small piece of the jigsaw to the database of such attacks was the only way we could help tackle them. Action Fraud told me that the perpetrators would undoubtedly be based overseas and there was little chance of bringing them to justice in the short term, but thanked us because every piece of additional information helps build a picture of this type of criminal activity, providing insights into how to counter it. Reporting the details of the crime also enabled the police to give us specific advice on how to deal with it. We didn’t need this help because we had a recent backup we could use to restore our system, but the police do have a database which can be used to decrypt many files affected by such attacks.

We did not contact the authors of the malware and we certainly didn’t pay a ransom, nor would we. Quite apart from the obvious moral argument about paying criminals and so helping fund and encourage their further activities, to do so seemed foolish in the extreme, We didn’t open any of the ‘ransom’ files placed on our network, but found screenshots of the instructions they contained on the internet. We weren’t asked for a specific amount but told that the fee, in bitcoin, would depend on how soon we responded. In exchange for payment, we would be sent a file to unlock the encrypted files. Deliberately launching an executable file sent by criminals didn’t sound like a good idea!

  

Lessons we learned

  1. This is what a critical incident plan is for! It’s essential to have a plan in place to cover the network going down – for example hard copy contact details for pupils, so you can contact home, and of the timetable so you know where everyone should be. Think about how often you access school information on a computer – how would you get that same information without a network?
  2. It pays to back up your network. For our school, a regular backup protocol meant that we could restore our systems and suffered only minimal loss of data. For teachers, the message is to also back up your own files, and keep the copy away from the network and the school premises. We all know this, but do we all do it?
  3. Remote access is used by many schools and can be a real help to staff. Remote Desktop Protocols are a known chink in the armour of network security, however, so how confident are you that you are protected? It’s worth checking.
  4. If it happens, it’s really worth reporting it. It helps tackle this kind of fraud, assists others, and also allows you to access help and support.
  5. We were fortunate in having a team with the expertise to deal with this situation. Are your IT team prepared? Is there any training you need to provide?

I hope that this doesn’t happen to your school and there’s no reason to think schools are particularly being targeted (who would think schools have money?!). It’s best to be prepared though, so I also hope this account of our experience will help others. I’d be interested to hear from other schools who have had similar experiences.

    Action Fraud can be contacted on 0300 123 2040 or via their website www.actionfraud.police.uk which also has a wealth of up to date information on Fraud and cybercrime.

    Ten tips to avoid exam stress (revisited)

    Exam season looms large on the horizon and we teachers must balance appropriate motivating of our students with awareness of likely stress or anxiety.

    I wrote an earlier version of this post in April 2016. In 2017 there seems to be even more uncertainty, for teachers and students alike. In the new GCSEs we can’t guide students with any real certainty as to which grades they will achieve. For A levels, it’s the first time any of the new Advanced exams have been set, and only the second for new AS qualifications. Such uncertainties are likely to add to the anxiety of some students. Teachers need to be especially careful not to project our own worry on to those we teach.

    Here, then, I am revisiting ten helpful things students can do to keep motivated and stay healthy too. The list originates from an (old specification!) A level psychology task I gave my students to do when they studied a unit on stress. The aim was to use what they had learned to write advice for fellow students. I have developed it over the years and this latest version is influenced by advice from our School Health Nurse, the NHS, and the charity Mind. 


    Ten tips to beat exam stress

    1. Get Organised. Make sure you know what exams you have, what kind of questions they will have and when they are.
    2. Manage your time. Your time is precious, so make the best use of it by drawing up a revision timetable. Make sure you build in breaks between sessions.
    3. Stay In control by sticking to your plan and using it to review what you have achieved and what is coming next.
    4. The right Environment. Work somewhere that is light, has enough space and is distraction-free. Music may be OK (you’ll know what works for you) but visual input from TV, screens & social media will just distract you. 
    5. Boost your confidence. Use a revision journal, recall things that have gone well in the past and visualise your success.
    6. Eat Healthily and stay hydrated. Avoid ‘energy’ drinks: they may give the illusion of alertness but actually impair your performance (that’s why you never see an advert saying ‘Drink Red Bull: it helps you revise.’ Because it doesn’t.
    7. Get enough sleep; don’t stay up late revising, a tired brain does not work well, either at the time, or the next morning.
    8. Friends & family. Let them know you have exams and need to revise. Keep in touch during those breaks you planned into your revision.
    9. Avoid life changes. Now isn’t the time To start a new relationship or plan to run away to the circus (however tempting that may seem).
    10. Understand your body and the signals it sends you. Recognise that signs of exam nerves like ‘butterflies in the stomach’ a dry mouth, or sweaty palms are nothing to worry about. They are just symptoms telling you that your body preparing for action. 

    We include a version of this list in the revision advice we give to students and share it with parents through our school newsletter. This year we have also run special sessions on tackling exam anxiety this year which have proved popular. 

    Students can get more help and advice on student life from the Student Minds website and  these pages on the Mind website where you can also download a PDF document. Advice directed at parents and carers can be found on this area of the NHS Choices website.

    I hope you found this post useful. Please feel free to use and adapt it as you wish. I’d be interested in which resources other schools use.

    Ten things to look forward to in the Summer term

    The weeks between Christmas and Easter may have seemed a long haul and the new term will bring the challenges of revision and exams for many, but there’s plenty to look forward to at the start of the Summer term. Here’s my top ten list:

    1. For some of our students, the holidays can be difficult and, although they might not always show it, they’ll have been be looking forward to the new term. Make it a good one.
    2. Easter isn’t over! It isn’t just a bank holiday, it’s a whole season and the biggest festival in the Christian tradition, so keep on celebrating!
    3. Easter and Spring are traditionally times for thinking about new life and new beginnings. What aspects of your practice could you revitalise? Is there something new you could try?
    4. We’re now well into British Summer Time – no more waking up before sunrise and coming home darkness: the days will be getting longer and (hopefully) warmer. Take some times to soak up those rays. Even on overcast days natural sunlight will do you good (remember sunscreen though).
    5. While you’re out and about, take some time to connect with nature. Look out for the signs that spring is turning into summer. Take notice of small changes and you’ll soon see that no two days are alike.
    6. How did you do with any New Year resolutions? Now is an ideal time to commit to your own wellbeing, making those resolutions not just a one-off but part of a healthier, happier lifestyle.
    7. There are plenty of holidays and festivals during the Summer term including the May Day bank holiday (1 May), Spring Bank Holiday (29th May), Shavuot (31 May), Pentecost (4 June), Fathers’ Day (18 June), Summer Solstice (21 June), and Eid-al-Fitr (26 June).
    8. You may have pupils taking exams this term, but you don’t have to sit them! I always hated exams and while I’m proud of my qualifications I’m also glad that I no longer have to sit exams! We all survived the process – use your experience to help students be successful too. I’ve written about avoiding exam stress here. The article also contains links to useful websites.
    9. Some of the best bits of school happen in the Summer term: school trips, outdoor education, Summer concerts, PTA barbecues, sports days, proms, end of year awards. These and more enrich the curriculum and help build communities.
    10. At the end of this term… Summer holiday!

    So, what are you looking forward to this Summer term? Why not share with a comment? 

    Festival dates from timeanddate.com

    Workable Wellbeing 3

    Last Sunday, the #SLTchat topic was wellbeing, hosted by @ottleyoconnor, a topic this Twitter discussion forum has addressed before. The irony of teachers tweeting about work-life balance on a Sunday evening notwithstanding, I have always found theses discussions really useful and they have inspired these earlier posts on wellbeing.

    Workable wellbeing

    Workable wellbeing 2

    Returning to wellbeing seems more relevant than ever. What struck me about the discussion was the number of participants writing about modelling wellbeing for others. This had been mentioned previously, but it seemed to me that it was a dominant theme of the most recent forum. @pickleholic, @issydhan, @chrisedwardsuk, and @AsstHead_Jones, among others, all stressed the importance of school leaders modelling behaviours that foster positive wellbeing.

    How can we model what wellbeing looks like? Here’s my completely unscientific sample of elements grabbed from the blizzard of comment that is #SLTchat:

    • It’s ok to leave early sometimes, especially when other days have been late.
    • Touching base about family, interests, hobbies, books, films or music is normal human interaction. We’re here to get a job done but relationships are important.
    • Share the things you do to foster your own wellbeing. I hope I haven’t bored anybody about #teacher5aday or the Fitbit I got for Christmas!
    • Admit mistakes, talk about times when you got it wrong, and what you learned. OK, there’s a time and a place for this. There are many occasions where colleagues need leaders to lead, modelling calm and decisiveness, but being superhuman isn’t realistic and pretending to be can harm oneself and be off-putting to others. 
    • Ask for help. We need to be accessible to our teams, so we should model that it’s OK to ask for help. Teachers shouldn’t feel isolated and asking for help will show others that it’s ok to do the same.
    • Smile. I’m terrible for getting lost in thought, presenting a blank gaze to others in the corridor, but a smile at the right moment can be just what someone needs.
    • Make talking about mental health everyday and normal. I think this was another strong strand in the discussion, quite rightly.

    So what I have taken away from last Sunday’s #SLTchat is the need to model behaviours that lead to wellbeing. I’ll be trying to do that more at work from now on. What was my contribution to the discussion on work-life balance? Leaving the chat early to pick my son up from youth club!

      Snow Joke: Severe Weather Planning

      Earlier this week (w/b 9/1/17) an off-the-cuff comment about snow became my most ‘liked’ tweet ever:

      Today I made sure our severe weather closure procedures were in place. Absolute guarantee that not a single snowflake will fall on school.

      I’m glad that so many people liked it but, joking apart, here’s what some of that planning actually was.

      Verifying our priorities for partial closure if necessary. We’re an all-through school so we would prioritise nursery and primary pupils where parents would find it difficult to organise childcare or time off work at short notice. The next priority is students in exam years. We would redeploy staff as necessary. We also check which colleagues are most likely to have transport difficulties in the event of severe weather.

      Checking the communication cascade for staff. We use a text/phone cascade to communicate quickly to all colleagues if we have to partially or fully close. This uses our line management structure so we checked that everyone had the up to date details they needed. Better to check before the weather turns!

      Checking contractors. We have a contract in place for snow clearance on campus. Worth checking they were ready for a possible snowfall. Similarly checking our own provision – salt, grit, etc.

      Parental communication. Checking and where necessary updating draft messages ready to be sent out by text, email and website. Just as well we did, version we had was dated 2013 and from previous Head! We also checked that procedures for contacting the LA and local media were up to date, including current code words for local radio stations.

      Snow Rules. Check what advice and rules need to be in place for snowfall, in addition to our code of conduct, so we can enjoy snow safely.

      Update work for students in the event of snow closure. This is our current advice which would be posted on our website and emailed out in the event of a closure. We like to think it is both productive and fun:

      Work in the event of a Snow Closure

      You should aim to gain at least 16 points from a mix of the following activities.

       Individual work:​Please check Show My Homework and Doddle to see if your teachers have set you individual or class tasks. 1 point per 15 minutes

       Art:​​ 3D Sculpture. Keeping warm and working safely, build a snow sculpture to a design of your choosing. You can work on your own or with others. Take a photo of your completed sculpture or draw it. If there isn’t enough snow, sketch a design for a sculpture. 4 points

       English:​ Persuasive Writing. The decision to close schools because of heavy snowfall is sometimes controversial. Write an argument for or against closing schools for this reason. You must consider both sides of the debate. 6 points

      ​Points to consider:

      • Health & safety of pupils

      • Ability of pupils and school staff to travel to school safely

      • Impact on parents of having to miss work to look after children

       

      Faith in Action:​ Snow can be a lot of fun, but for some people such as the elderly, it can create real difficulties. Design a poster, leaflet or radio/TV ad about helping elderly relatives or neighbours during winter. If you can help out someone in need, please do, but only if you know them and with permission of your parent/carer. 4 points.

      French / German:​ Linguascope. Please log at least 30 minutes of Linguascope activity. 1 point for every 15 minutes.

      Maths:​ Mymaths. Please log at least 30 minutes of activity on MyMaths. Your teacher will receive an update of your progress. 1 point for every 15 minutes.

      PE:​ Aerobic exercise. Keeping warm and staying safe, do at least 30 minutes aerobic exercise including any of the following activities:

      • Snowballing

      • Sledging

      • Building snow sculptures

      • Making snow angels

      ​If there isn’t enough snow for this, design a 30 minute winter aerobic exercise workout. 4 points

      Science​: Use your knowledge of states of matter to predict the volume of liquid produced from a volume of liquid snow. Use a measuring jug, old drinks bottle, etc. to test your hypothesis. Record your results. 4 points.

      ICT​: Tweet a message about your work using the hashtag #stgregorysnow or email a message to Dr Caseby: r.caseby@dbmac.org.uk with ‘stgregorysnow’ as the subject header. ​1 point each, max 3 points.


      Postscript 14/1/17

      After that planning, as I predicted in my tweet, we didn’t have any significant snowfall last week; what there was quickly turned to slush. I am now being blamed by several colleagues for ‘jinxing the snow day’!

      Comments are always welcome. I’d be interested to know what work or activities other schools set in the event of a snow day.

      Chalking the doors: the importance of a welcome

      This Friday we started the school day by marking Epiphany with the Christian tradition of chalking the doors. Each lintel or door was chalked with:

      20+C+M+B+17

      This isn’t a mathematical formula, but a blessing on all those who enter, ‘CMB’ standing for Christus Mansionem Benedictat – may Christ bless the house – and also the traditional names of the three wise men, Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar.

      I work in a Catholic school and this is a tradition particular to some branches of Chritianity, but it felt very special to offer a blessing to students as they entered a classroom, or to colleagues in an admin area or office. Relationships are at the heart of any school community and the first step in forming positive relationships is making people feel welcome.

      We encourage all teachers to welcome students into classrooms each lesson, trying as much as possible to timetable each colleague into one room. As well as a verbal greeting, welcome message on the board can also be a nice touch. Displays featuring children’s work shows them they are valued, as well as providing exemplars. Several colleagues rotate work on a continually updated ‘wall of fame’.

      This welcome becomes all the more important for new pupils arriving mid-year, especially those who don’t have English as a first language. We have an orientation day for new students and our EAL department will work with them and their family or carers on an initial programme to support their language needs. This enables all staff to receive a single-page profile of the pupil before they commence classes.

      One of the many advantages of being a very diverse school community is that whatever first language a new pupil has we can usually ‘buddy’ them up with someone who speaks it. The new pupil is placed in a tutor group and, where possible, classes with their buddy. Staff are informed who the buddy is on the new student profile.

      We need to be particularly aware when pupils have experienced trauma before arriving, such as being refugees.  I have written about supporting children who are refugees, and the problems they can face once in Britain here. One thing we always do is warn staff to be careful when using media such as news articles and films that depict conflict.

      These are some of the ways we extend our welcome, from the planned induction of a new pupil to the daily interactions across the whole community. We hope this makes coming into class feel like a blessing, not just at the start of the year but every day.

      Constructive comments are always welcome. I’d particularly like to hear about other ways of extending a welcome in school.

      Ten things to look forward to in the Spring Term

      Christmas may be over and the New Year welcomed in. Long, warm summer days may feel a distant prospect, but don’t despair, there’s plenty to look forward to at the start of the Spring term in 2017. Here’s my top ten list:

      1. Christmas isn’t over until 6th January (twelfth night) – and this year that’s a Friday! I’ll be keeping my decorations up till then!
      2. If that isn’t enough for you, Orthodox Christmas Day this year is on Saturday 7th January.
      3. You may have just exchanged cards or greetings with friends or family you don’t see much. You could take up the opportunity of the new year to reconnect with them. Why not arrange to meet up?
      4. If you’re like me, you may have received books as Christmas presents and can look forward to reading them. I really enjoy just a few minutes of reading for pleasure at the end of each day. Why not get together with some colleagues and start a book swap in the staff room? This is just one of many ways to achieve workable wellbeing.
      5. On our return to work both pupils and colleagues will arrive with their presents from Santa. Why not exploit the entertainment value here and  play ‘Spot the new jumper/tie/shoes’, etc? (I don’t know why this is, but there seems to be an invariant rule that whenever I wear any thing new it gets noticed, but only the third time I wear it). With pupils you can use pencil cases or stationary to monitor trends in popular culture – which comes out on top, Rogue One or Fantastic Beasts?
      6. You may have to set off for work in the dark to start with, but from now on the days will be getting longer. Getting outside in daylight each day will help beat the winter blues. Even if the sky is overcast, that natural sunlight will do you good.
      7. While you’re out and about, take some time to connect with nature. Look out for the little signs that spring is on it’s way and take notice of small changes – already you may see some leaves of bulbs poking through the soil, or some buds on trees or shrubs swelling before they blossom.
      8. The start of a new year is an ideal time to commit to your own wellbeing. Why not take a look at the #Teacher5aday from @MartynReah for some ideas? You can join in with teachers all over the country. I was slow to catch on to this but found it really helpful over the past year.
      9. It’s not all cold wet misery in winter – there are plenty of feasts, festivals and holy days. Here are some dates in 2017: Burns’ Night – 25 Jan, Chinese New Year – 28 Jan, Valentine’s Day – 14 Feb, Shrove Tuesday – 28 Feb, St David’s Day – 1 Mar, both Holi and Purim are on 12 Mar, St Patrick’s Day – 17 Mar, Mothering Sunday (and the start of British Summer Time) – 26 Mar.
      10. The best thing about teaching in 2017, and every other year, is knowing that what we do makes a real positive difference to the children in our classes. For some of them, the holidays can be difficult and, although they might not always show it, they’ll have been be looking forward to the new term. Make it a good one.

      So, what are you looking forward to this Spring? Have I missed any key dates from this list? Why not share with a comment? 

      Happy New Year!