Hackers have demanded $1 million from Pine Forge Academy in Pennsylvania in the first known cyber threat against a Seventh-day Adventist educational institution.
State police have opened an investigation after the rural boarding school’s principal, Nicole Falconer, received an anonymous e-mail that said hackers would attack the school’s computer system and other property if the funds were not paid.
“We have no information about why this monetary ransom was made,” Falconer said in a statement. “The school authorities are cooperating with police authorities as they investigate this matter and will keep us posted on any further developments.”
The e-mailed threat said unspecified academy alumni had offered $900,000 to carry out the attack and the hackers would cancel it if the school paid $1 million, according to police.
The hackers identified themselves as working for “Heart of the People” and said they had successfully struck 57 other institutions.
Falconer said she reported the threat, which she received on Dec. 16, to the police immediately.
“The authorities reviewed the message, circulated the premises, and determined the facility to be safe, and advised the school to remain diligent in all safety protocols and procedures,” Falconer said in the statement, posted on the school’s website. “Parents received alerts regarding police visitation.”
The threat appears to be the first of its kind against an Adventist educational institution. “I am not aware of other threats,” said Larry Blackmer, the Adventist Church's top education official for North America. He said he would alert other church education leaders about the situation at Pine Forge Academy.
Cyber attacks have risen drastically around the world this year, with companies reporting a 48 percent increase to 42.8 million attacks compared to 2013, according to a recent survey by business consulting powerhouse PricewaterhouseCoopers. Headline-grabbing attacks have included the theft of unreleased films, private e-mails, and other data from Sony Pictures and the theft of millions of customers’ credit card details from Target stores.
Educational institutions have not been immune this year. The Identity Theft Resource Center, an organization that tracks cyber attacks, has counted 56 online security breaches at U.S. public and private educational institutions. Of the total 744 breaches, the majority occurred at hospitals and other medical facilities (42.6 percent) and businesses (32.7 percent).
Internet security experts have cautioned that the number of cyber attacks will only grow next year.
In an attempt to shield itself, the Seventh-day Adventist Church appointed the first chief information officer to its world headquarters this year. The officer, Nancy Lamoreaux, is responsible for overseeing online security as well as a global technology strategy among regional church entities and institutions.
At Pine Forge Academy, meanwhile, worried parents want to know who is behind the $1 million demand but voiced doubt that any alumni might be involved.
"It's very concerning to me, not just for the school, but for any institution or organization period and it has to be stopped," Ray Baynard, whose son is a 12th grader, told local WFMZ television news.
“He’s got to be a low-life,” another parent, Aston Wait, told CBS Philly television. The hackers have “got to be criminals, given that we are a private institution and our goal is to raise nice, upstanding young people.”
It was unclear what deadline if any has been imposed by the hackers. The school, which teaches students in grades nine through 12, most of whom are African-American, is closed for Christmas vacation this week. An automatic reply to an e-mail sent to the school’s main account said no one would be available on campus until Dec. 29.
In her statement, Falconer asked for prayers. She is just six months into her first year as the academy’s principal, and the cyber threat comes less than a month after an accidental fire forced the closure of the girls’ dormitory for repairs.
“We are grateful for God’s care and keeping,” Falconer said, “and ask you to join us in praying for the continued safety of all of our school family and extended community family during this holiday season.”
Adventist Review, Nov. 18, 2014: “69 Girls Left Without Rooms After Fire at Adventist Boarding School”
Adventist Review, Aug. 21, 2014: “Nancy Lamoreaux Named Adventist Church’s First CIO”
WFMZ television news, Dec. 19, 2014: “Police Investigate Hacking Threat Against Pine Forge Academy”
CBS Philly television news, Dec. 19, 2014: “Investigation Underway After Hackers Attack Pine Forge Academy, Demand a Million Dollars”