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City, school officials grapple with cybersecurity questions

City, school officials grapple with cybersecurity questions

New technology has risks and rewards
City, school officials grapple with cybersecurity questions
Current UAlbany faculty member Robert Griffin, shown here leading a cyber security class, participated in the recent summit.

ALBANY — Technology is not going away, nor is the mushrooming cloud of data generated by its applications.

But amid the emergence of cybercrime, a leading goal of security experts and school administrators is to determine how to keep data safe while also harnessing technology for public safety, including intervention and crisis prevention. 

“There’s a lot of good things you can do with technology and there are a lot of evil things,” said Frank Gallo, an account manager with security firm Cisco. “We read about that every day and we see it every day."

Gallo, a self-described “data plumber,” was part of a panel discussion at a University at Albany-sponsored summit recently designed to help prepare schools to “mitigate, prepare for, respond to and recover from various emergencies and crises.”

While the summit last week was prompted by recent increases in violence on school and college campuses, the panel also tackled other concerns.

Dr. Greg Mathison, a senior education adviser with Cisco, said a school district is hacked every three days. 

“Those are the ones we know about it,” he said. 

Robert Griffin, a former U.S. Department of Homeland Security official, said schools will continue to be attractive target for mass shootings, particularly as security around government buildings increasingly hardens. 

But striking the right balance between security and accessibility remains an open question, he said, and each district must engage in a conversation for what policies are best for them. 

“We can build a completely safe school, but it’s not a school anyone would want to be at,” said Griffin, quoting his former boss, U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson, who served in the Obama administration.


Classrooms use more technology now than ever, from smartphone apps to 3-D printers. But the opportunities for mischief are available to any tech-savvy operator with nefarious motives.

“What happens when people start to print devices that could be in your school?” Griffin said. “How will devices be used by those who will hack into them?” 

Griffin, a founding dean of the University at Albany’s School of Education and College of Emergency Preparedness, Homeland Security and Cybersecurity, said do-it-yourself bacterial genome engineering kits can be purchased on Amazon for as little as $160.

“You really have to think about how his technology can affect you,” he said. “It’s basically giving folks the ability to manipulate DNA, which should make you really scared.”

Griffin also warned that young people susceptible to being radicalized on social media.

“Your students are on those sites,” he said.

With technological advancements has come the use of predictive analytics, or the practice of mapping out future events through the analysis of data sets. 

“We’re educating the next generation of technologists that are going to help us control all these data points,” Gallo said. “My job is to go out and evangelize the importance of all this data that we have, and how to do we tie it together and make it work so we can be pre-emptive before something happens.”

Panelists indicated the emerging field shows promise in culling factors that can lead to incidents of mass violence. But they wondered how to filter out normal adolescent angst from potentially dangerous behavior.

"Predictive analytics are pretty tough,” Mathison said. “It’s hard to predict behavior.”

Griffin cautioned against wholesale government profiling, and said civil liberties are seldom reinstated once given up.

“Where does it become actionable where law enforcement can get involved, and I think that’s part of the big challenge,” he said. "Social media is changing too quickly and research isn’t able to keep in touch with a lot of these characteristics.” 


Just keeping track of data can present challenges.

David Versocki, Director of Technology at Capital Region BOCES, said the sheer influx of data can present a challenge for school administrators. 

A recent survey conducted by the district revealed staff and faculty were using 600 applications in their classrooms, a measure he called “frightening” considering the programming wasn’t being funneled through a centralized collection point. 

The implications for security breaches keeps him up at night, he said. 

“I’m worried about where the rest of the data is going,” he said. 

To protect student data, Capital Region BOCES is working on building a standardized framework containing best practices for school faculty and staff.

“This cybersecurity framework will have required protocols to be followed by school districts starting with a chief privacy officer,” said Versocki, who urged attendees to inventory their staff on their use of classroom technology.

A data breach wouldn’t be unprecedented. Five school districts in New York state, he said, recently experienced ransomware attacks, or when hackers seize control of software or network infrastructure until a fee is paid. 

One district was operationally hamstrung for weeks while trying to restore their backup data, said Versocki, who noted districts without backup systems will be left “dead in the water.” 

Versocki also said school districts are good at spending money on capital improvements, like vestibules or cameras, but those investments need to be accompanied by ongoing training.

“We really have to keep in mind the operational aspects of these things,” he said.


Schenectady Mayor Gary McCarthy has made infusing technology into daily government operations a centerpiece of his administration. 

While the use of sensor-based technology has myriad promising applications, from traffic control to reduce energy costs, McCarthy said separating valuable data from white noise presents an ongoing challenge. 

Another is how to use data to effectively eliminate the silos that tend to emerge in government departments and engage across multiple institutions. 

For instance, numerous city departments may interact with a problematic city residence, from the Codes Department to city police responding to a domestic violence incident.

McCarthy said it would be beneficial to pass along any useful information to the Schenectady City School District, who can aid the child whose performance may be impacted by disturbances. 

“It’s those relationships we have to build,” McCarthy said. 

Michael G. Munger, director of campus safety at SUNY Schenectady, said the city has been a good partner in the Smart Cities initiative, the benefits of which are now beginning to trickle back to campus.

But he raised concerns over the cost of managing and interpreting data. 

“Now you’ve got upgrades, you’ve got licensing fees,” he said. “The money just continues to roll into it, but it’s not coming in.”

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