FCPS superintendent advocates for federal action on cybersecurity threats to schools

Fairfax County Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Michelle Reid is urging national elected officials to step up their efforts to safeguard local schools from cybercrime threats.

During a Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce event in Tysons on Monday (March 11), Reid asked Sen. Mark Warner about Congress’s strategy to address privacy threats to FCPS students and staff and other communities nationwide that are susceptible to ransomware attacks.

“Every division in this country, right now, we’re all being asked to stand up cybersecurity departments,” she told Warner during a question and answer session. “Our department is actually larger than a number of our instructional departments.”

Warner visited the Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce’s offices at the Silverline Center (7900 Westpark Drive) to discuss several issues, expressing confidence in the passage of a second federal spending bill later this month and emphasizing the necessity of Congress providing aid to Ukraine.

As chair of the Senate’s National Security and International Trade and Finance Committee, he also spoke passionately about the need for protection against cyber threats both domestically and abroad, with a particular focus on social media platforms like TikTok.

The U.S. House of representatives is expected to vote on a bipartisan bill this week requiring TikTok to either be divested from its Chinese owner ByteDance or face a nationwide ban. Although it’s not clear whether the Senate is on the same page, Warner said he supports putting up “guardrails.”

“I think TikTok is a national security issue,” he told a room full of attendees. “…People make the money off of TikTok as social influencers. I’m all for that. It just bothers me that this company is ultimately controlled by the Communist Party of China.”

The emphasis on cybersecurity led Reid and others to question the need for increased federal regulation of emerging technologies, including artificial intelligence, calling current regulations insufficient to protect schools which have had to stand up their own cyber security departments as a result.

“I want my focus to be on making sure all our third graders are learning to read, and our eighth graders are able to complete algebra 2,” Reid said. “…I’ve been asked this year for another 20 positions for cybersecurity, with a conversation about [how] we have to protect our 180,000 students’ data or 40,000 staff members, and I’m not a cybersecurity expert.”

In September 2020, FCPS was hit by a cyber attack from a hacker group called MAZE, which compromised personal records, including the social security numbers of several hundred employees. The group threatened to leak employee records and other sensitive documents unless the division paid a ransom.

FCPS told NBC4 that it had hired cybersecurity experts and the FBI was investigating the attack.

Last November, FCPS faced another significant data breach after it mistakenly disclosed tens of thousands of confidential student records to a parent. The school system wrapped up its investigation into the leak the following month.

When asked whether Congress has a strategy beyond relying on the FBI to ensure the safety of school divisions from such threats, Warner said he and a bipartisan group of lawmakers have already proposed legislation to mitigate cybersecurity threats in schools.

However, Warner pointed out that even if the bill were to pass, it would just a “band-aid.”

“I don’t have a great answer because even though we keep getting better, the bad guys keep getting better,” he said.

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