Coronavirus Pandemic

KT exclusive: UAE schools warned of hackers in virtual classrooms

Afkar Abdullah and Nandini Sircar/Dubai
Filed on February 26, 2021

Schools that have investigated such incidents found that, in some cases, hackers behind an attack were actually students playing pranks.

Teachers, parents and schools in the UAE have raised concern as hackers and pranksters found their way to virtual classrooms. In such cases, the intent has been to create mayhem and disruption and eventually shut down an online session.

Imagine a schoolkid glued to his screen, carefully listening to a teacher’s lecture, and then — all of a sudden — swear words, threats and inappropriate remarks would pop up on the class’ chatbox. Most recently, a school in Sharjah apparently saw hackers entering the school domain using students’ ID and password.

Schools that have investigated such incidents found that, in some cases, hackers behind an attack were actually students playing pranks.

A girls’ school in the northern emirates — which had filed a complaint with the authorities — said two hackers entered their virtual classes, spreading profanity and cuss words, creating chaos online. They also insulted teachers using the identity of innocent students. who were wrongly reprimanded for the behaviour they knew nothing about. Later, it was found that the culprits were a female student and her brother in Grade 10 and 11 who were studying at another school.

Mohammad Ali Kottakkulam, principal of Gulf Indian High School, said they did encounter spammers during the earlier days of distance learning. “When we were using another platform before moving over to Teams, we had only a single incident of a false ID intrusion who made some funny comments in the chatbox but our IT team immediately resolved it.”

Officials at the Ministry of Education (MoE) and the Sharjah Private education (SPEA) have confirmed receiving a number of complaints from schools and parents about online class disruptions. The ministry had immediately intervened and issued a circular, urging all students to change their passwords for their distance learning accounts. It also directed teachers to guide students on creating a strong and unique password, one with a mix of letters, numbers and symbols that would be difficult to predict. Kids are also reminded not to share their login details with anyone.

A top official of the Sharjah Police has said they also had such hacking cases, which they are addressing in coordination with the SPEA to ensure the school community’s online safety.

These cases are happening at virtual classrooms all over the world and school heads agree that systems in the UAE are far more protected than those in other countries. In fact, the Emirates has a world-class programme in place to help schools assess the safety of their e-learning methods. Educational institutions have been working with the authorities to keep hackers away.

In November 2020, a smart security structure called ‘Aqdar E-Safe Schools’ was launched in the public and private schools of the UAE. With electronic communication means (Cyber C3), it explains cybercrime laws and the technical and precautionary measures that must be taken to protect privacy.

Lt-Col Sultan Al Ketbi, deputy general coordinator of the Khalifa Empowerment Programme, said the initiative educates students about the challenges they may face in the digital world; what happens when the technology is misused; and what they should do in case of hacking attacks. It also supports guardians with safety tips that can help them protect their wards online.

“The UAE has become the first country in the world to apply the concept of a digitally safe school to all its public and private schools,” Lt-Col Al Ketbi said.

Arogya Reddy, principal of Ambassador School Sharjah, said that aside from the government’s programme, telecom providers do their bit to boost safety. “They have such firewalls where all network activities can be monitored and inappropriate websites be blocked,” Reddy said.

In UAE schools, pupils are given personalised school e-mail IDs so they can access their remote classes exclusively. Additionally, cyber-safety workshops are often held with students, parents and faculty.

For other campuses, switching learning platforms and boosting network security have solved the issue. Waseem Al Fadny, an information security advisor, pointed out that such changes could be necessary because some programmes are prone to cyber attacks.

There are platforms that could be easily penetrated and tampered with. Aisha Al Traifi, principal of a private schools in Sharjah, said their school had studied the negative impact of remote education on the privacy of students and their families. After the school sought the help of a technical expert, it became clear that the programme they used was vulnerable to hacking. She added that with such programmes, education staff had not control that could prevent an intruder from attending classes.

Al Fadny said Microsoft Teams is typically considered safer than the others, and some schools would agree.

Kottakkulam of Gulf Indian High School said that since they shifted to Teams, they haven’t encountered spams or unwanted pop-ups. “Teams can only be accessed by school members of staff and school pupils. Students are trained to contact the school safeguarding team if they are being bullied online,” he added.

Explaining how the community could fight and prevent hacking, Rinoy Das, team lead for the IT department of Springdales School Dubai, said: “In our school, a server-client version of TM antivirus is installed on physical, virtual servers and all our client machines. This prevents all kinds of external malicious attacks happening through external media. Additionally, customised security policies and rules on our firewall make our network more secure.”

Education expert Khalifa Al Hamadi said private school administrations must be compelled to adopt more advanced safety systems. “All weaknesses in the distance education system must be monitored so these can be avoided in the future, especially since this is the first time that the e-learning mode is applied in general in all educational institutions.”

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