By Sean Lyngaas, CNN
Two separate cyberattacks have disrupted public services in New Mexico’s most populous county in the last eight days, with one forcing the Albuquerque public school system to close and another knocking out cameras at a local jail.
It’s one of the most visceral recent examples of the toll that ransomware and other forms of hacking can take on American life as the Biden administration tries to crack down on the cybercriminals carrying out the digital heists.
Albuquerque’s public school system — which comprises 144 schools and serves about a fourth of New Mexico’s public school students — said it would close Thursday and Friday because a “cyberattack” had “compromised some systems that could impact teaching, learning, and student safety.”
Meanwhile, ransomware that on January 5 infected the computer systems of Bernalillo County, home to Albuquerque, was still keeping most administrative buildings closed to the public on Thursday, county spokesperson Tia Bland told CNN. County residents couldn’t file mortgages because of the ransomware attack, the New Mexico Association of Realtors said.
“The FBI takes all cyber-crime seriously and is aware of the reported incident at Albuquerque Public Schools today,” the FBI’s Albuquerque office said in a statement to CNN. “At this time, it does not appear the APS and Bernalillo County cyber incidents are related.”
It was unclear who was responsible for the separate hacking incidents. Bland declined to comment on the type of ransomware used, citing an ongoing investigation. It was unclear if ransomware was involved in the public schools incident. Monica Armenta, who oversees communications for Albuquerque Public Schools, said she was unavailable for comment by publication time.
Ellen Bernstein, president of Albuquerque Teachers Federation, said the cybersecurity incident added to the stresses put on schools by the coronavirus and was “especially hard for the students and their families,” for whom school was canceled at the last minute.
“I feel like if you could brainstorm everything that would make teaching harder, this just was the next thing,” Bernstein told CNN. The break in classroom activity does, however, offer a respite for schools that have been dealing with staff shortages, she said.
Bernstein said computer systems used to take school attendance, contact parents and keep grades had been hampered by the hack. “People are a little anxious about knowing how bad it may or may not get,” she added.
The public school system said it hoped to be back open on Tuesday, after the public holiday on Monday.
Ransomware attacks hampering governments
Ransomware attacks have for years plagued state and local governments, which often don’t have the money and personnel to deal with the threat. A 2019 attack on the city of Baltimore halted the city’s ability to process water-billing payments for three months, according to The Baltimore Sun. Baltimore officials estimated at the time that the ransomware attack would cost the city at least $18 million.
US lawmakers and the Biden administration are pouring resources into bolstering state and local cybersecurity. The $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill that President Joe Biden signed into law in November includes $1 billion over four years to help fortify the networks of state and local governments, and tribes and territories.
Every week brings another reminder of why the resources are needed.
The ransomware incident in Bernalillo County forced the county jail to temporarily go into lockdown and suspend visitor access because the facility’s cameras and other technology weren’t working.
The jail’s automatic doors were temporarily out of order, and the hack hit a database the jail uses to record inmate incident reports, according to an emergency notice the jail filed January 6 in federal court in New Mexico.
On its website, the Metropolitan Detention Center says it continues to function and is “receiving and releasing inmates.” Bland, the Bernalillo County spokesperson, said in an email Thursday that there is “daily progress being made regarding MDC cameras. No timeframe for project completion.”
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CNN’s Julia Vargas Jones contributed reporting.