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Panel Discusses Cyber Security For Montana Public Schools

A panel of federal land state security, public school and elected officials discuss cybersecurity.
Nicky Ouellet
Yellowstone Public Radio
Montana Public Service Commissioner Tony O'Donnell (far right) convened a panel to discuss cyber security for public schools in Billings August 28.

In the wake of cyber attacks on public schools in Louisiana that led the governor there to declare a state of emergency last month, agency heads and elected officials in Montana are talking about how to keep student and staff information safe here.

Montana Public Service Commissioner Tony O’Donnell says as hackers wage more sophisticated and pervasive cyber attacks, state agencies across the board need to prepare.

“I wanted to explain a little bit why a public service commissioner is involved in this particular issue," he said. "I realize as secure as those utilities might be, that insofar as everybody around them is not as secure then the utilities are less secure and our energy supplies are less secure. it's all tied in together."

O’Donnell hosted a roundtable discussion in Billings this week with representatives from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the Montana Office of Public Instruction and Congressman Greg Gianforte.

Gianforte said it’s often too expensive for rural school districts to hire data security experts.

“This is why I encourage these schools to move their operations into the cloud if they can,” says Gianforte.

Columbia Falls School District says it did that after hackers known as TheDarkOverlord breached its electronic information directory and sent violent cyber threats to staff, students and families two years ago.

The hackers threatened to make students’ and staff personal information public if the district didn’t make ransom payments totalling up to $150,000 in Bitcoins.

Classes were canceled for nearly 16,000 public and private school students across the Flathead Valley for two days. The ransom wasn’t paid but analysis of the breach proved costly.

Since the attacks, the district has increased staff training, strengthened passwords and migrated much of the schools’ data onto a local intranet and the cloud.

Billings School District Chief Public Information Officer Brandon Newpher says it’s crucial for every faculty and staff member to be trained to identify potential threats, like email phishing attempts or sharing passwords.

“We have the hardware and software in stuff to keep us safe but it starts with the end user going out from there,” says Newpher.

Homeland Security offers a guide and survey to help schools evaluate security. A Montana-based agent is available for site assistance visits, which include physical and cyber security evaluations.