Anti-Semitic, Racist “Zoombomb” calls District Cybersecurity Into Question


Credit: Ciorra Photography / Creative Commons

The Northport-East Northport UFSD contacted the Suffolk County Police Department to investigate an incident in which an AOIT workshop was hacked and used to display anti-Semitic, obscene, and racist images and speech to the audience.

James Connor, Contributor

The last thing students and parents expected during the January 14 Academy of Information Technology (AOIT) meeting was anti-Semitism and racism. But when an alleged hacker gained access to the meeting, that was exactly what attendees were forced to confront.

According to an email sent out by school officials, the workshop was hacked and used to display anti-Semitic, obscene, and racist images and speech to the audience primarily made up of eighth grade students and other prospective AOIT members.

In response, the District called the Suffolk County Police Department to begin an investigation. SCPD, however, has since stated that “While the language was offensive, it was determined there was no specific threat made and the incident was deemed non-criminal”. The District has in turn reported the incident to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center, and is currently conducting its own internal investigation. According to Superintendent Robert Banzer, the District currently “cannot confirm that the individuals who carried out these despicable acts on Thursday are from our community”. Given that caveat, the incident could still represent a violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) or the Federal Wiretapping Act, both of which carry criminal charges. Banzer also noted that the school is “revising our protocols to prevent this from happening in the future”. But it could take more than revised protocols to keep the District secure.

As hackers continue to target educational institutions, cybersecurity for school districts has become an increasingly prevalent concern. In August of 2019, Rockville Centre paid nearly $100,000 after being infected with ransomware. This December, North Shore Hebrew Academy was defaced with anti-Semitic images and Nazi propaganda, prompting an FBI investigation. And last summer, Newsday covered an incident that occurred in the Oyster Bay-East Norwich CSD when “inappropriate images and sounds” interrupted a presentation to parents.

The act of disrupting a virtual video-conference, referred to as “zoombombing”, has become an increasingly popular trend as the world shifts to online platforms. As the FBI warns, moving towards distance learning has created an especially unique security threat for schools. David Goldenberg, Midwest Regional Director of the Anti-Defamation League, offers some insight into the motivations behind these zoombombing attacks. “We assume that those who are doing it are seeking to disrupt, and in some cases, spread hate and even intimidate,” Goldenberg says. “Those who have particular ideologies … can use this as an opportunity to target different groups.”

The Northport-East Northport School District is not completely inexperienced when it comes to confronting hate speech. In July of 2020, grafitti that included Nazi symbolism was found on the roof of Dickinson Avenue Elementary School. SCPD was called in to conduct an investigation of the incident.

As for Thursday night’s zoombomb, the district has unequivocally condemned the hateful rhetoric and further declared that they will be “examining ways to increase [our] security and accessibility” for online platforms. In the words of Superintendent Banzer following the graffiti in July, there remains “no tolerance for acts of racism, hate or vandalism within our district”.