Classroom Technology

Hacked Twitter Accounts a New Headache for Schools

By Benjamin Herold — September 28, 2017 6 min read
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The trouble for Foothill High started at 2 p.m. on a Tuesday afternoon earlier this month.

That’s when a stream of profane and offensive messages started appearing on the official Twitter account of the 2,600-student school near Las Vegas.

Among them: taunts about the school’s “weak weak security system,” a photo of a school administrator altered in a vulgar way, and anarchist images and messages.

It wasn’t the first time a public school district faced this new kind of emergency.

Back in June, hackers took control of the official Twitter account of Florida’s 40,000-student St. Lucie school district. Among the posts that went out to St. Lucie’s 2,700 followers: a graphic photo of lynched African-Americans, as well as a racist message that said, “After Heavy Consideration, Our District Has Decided To Ban All African Americans From Our School District. Thank You!”

Both incidents represent a convergence of issues that are increasingly bedeviling K-12 systems: inappropriate uses of social media, and a wide range of cybersecurity threats.

And while they so far appear to be unusual, the Twitter-account hackings in Florida and Nevada raise important questions for school officials and tech companies alike, said Douglas A. Levin, the president of consulting group EdTech Strategies.

Chief among them: What security steps should schools be taking to better secure their social-media accounts? What should happen to students who share offensive content posted by hackers? And how can companies like Twitter respond more quickly to such instances after they occur?

In St. Lucie, for example, the racist posts remained public for nearly 12 hours, sparking outrage from the district superintendent.

And in Nevada, it took almost two days to get the offensive messages removed.

That’s a big problem, Levin said.

“There’s not any gray area here,” he said. “The accounts were compromised, and what was published was clearly inappropriate and clearly not something the districts did themselves.”

Basic security steps

Foothill High’s principal declined a request to be interviewed.

A spokeswoman for St. Lucie schools likewise declined to comment or provide an update on the hacking incident there, citing the ongoing challenges the district faces as it responds to flooding caused by Hurricane Irma earlier this month.

It does not appear that any arrests have been made in either case. Investigations appear to be ongoing in both locations.

One big question that remains unanswered: How were the school and district Twitter accounts compromised in the first place?

In the case of St. Lucie, the hackers offered some pretty big clues.

During an interview with local television station CBS12, a representative of a group calling itself Cryo Squad said it had targeted the district “because it was extremely vulnerable and they have little to no security.”

Levin of EdTech Strategies said it would be no surprise if poor security practices played a role in the breaches.

There are two big, basic steps that he and other experts suggested schools take to prevent social media accounts from being compromised.

“Having a strong password and keeping it confidential is important,” Levin said. “It’s also important to enable the advanced security features that most platforms offer, especially two-factor authentication.”

On passwords, Levin advised schools to make sure they’re long and complicated; to not reuse the same passwords for multiple services; and to consider using password-management software.

And two-factor authentication basically means that after entering a password, a user must complete a second step—often entering a code that is sent by text message—in order to access an account. That way, even if a password is compromised, hackers still won’t have all the information they need to take control of an account. Most platforms allow users to opt into such features by adjusting their settings.

1. Use a unique, complex password for each platform and update it regularly.

2. Use two-factor authentication.

3. Have a response plan in place, including point people to reset passwords and contact companies.

Source: C. Blohm & Associates

With all the other cybersecurity challenges districts are facing, it can be easy to overlook such steps, Levin said. And while losing control of a school Twitter account is a major nuisance, it’s different than having confidential employee or student information stolen from other software systems.

But given how difficult it can be to restore order after a social-media account has already been hacked, he said, an ounce of prevention is clearly worth the effort.

Potential legal pitfalls

Back in Nevada, one of the challenges faced by district administrators and leaders at Foothill High was how to respond if students shared the inappropriate content hackers posted on the school’s Twitter account.

After the hacking took place, the district released a statement saying “any student found to be involved in sharing or retweeting this content could face disciplinary action.”

In an email, a district spokesman said Clark County’s cyberbullying policy was the basis for that stance. The spokesman added that “parents were contacted directly by school administrators if there were concerns with their child regarding this incident.”

But Bradley Shear, a Maryland-based lawyer who focuses on privacy and social-media law, said any such punishment meted out for sharing social-media content would likely be illegal and would almost certainly open a can of worms.

“Public schools have no legal basis whatsoever to discipline students based on sharing digital content from the school district’s own accounts, regardless of the situation,” Shear said.

Besides, he asked, how could the district know for sure that it was actually the student, and not someone else using their account, who shared the content? Under what other circumstances would schools presume to monitor and regulate students’ outside-of-school social media postings?

“The bottom line is that [Clark County’s] threat is not only very troubling, but also hollow,” Shear said. “If they do discipline a student for sharing the content, they will lose any lawsuit arising out of the matter.”

Trouble reaching Twitter

And then there’s the matter of getting the offensive content taking down after it appears.

The Clark County spokesman declined to specify exactly how long Foothill’s account was compromised, but it appeared to be under external control for well over three days.

And in remarks at a news conference that were reported by local station WPTV, St. Lucie superintendent Wayne Gent fumed at how long it took Twitter to remove the racist messages posted from his district’s account.

“I was mad as hell,” Gent said during the news conference.

“There’s not a hotline that you can contact or a hotline that you can call. It’s done through emails, it’s done through texting and we could not get a response from [Twitter.]”

Levin of EdTechStategies said that’s unfortunate, but not surprising.

Platforms such as Twitter are awash in offensive, abusive, and otherwise problematic content, and they are even getting called to testify before Congress for their roles in enabling foreign governments to spread misinformation and meddle in elections. And their strategy of relying on algorithms and technology to respond to problems doesn’t appear to be working very well, Levin said.

“I think one lesson for schools is that if you’re going to use free, cloud-based services, it may be very challenging to reach someone who can help you in a timely manner,” he said. “You’re really at their mercy.”

Twitter officials did not respond to requests for comments sent via their platform.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.