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Hackers Took Down a High School Literacy Test Because Punk’s Not Dead

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A dry run for a high school literacy test in Ontario was cancelled last week after being sabotaged with a cyber attack, affecting thousands of grade 10 students, the organization that oversees the test announced on Monday.

According to the province's Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO), which plans on administering the test online in March in a digital first, the pilot was scuttled after being targeted by a "intentional, malicious and sustained" distributed denial of service attack, or DDoS. The attack could have affected up to 150,000 students who were registered at schools that volunteered to participate in the trial, and only 16,000 were able to complete the test before it was taken offline.

"We really did not think that anyone would go into a system and interfere with a student assessment, because this was impacting individual students," EQAO director of assessment Richard Jones said in an interview. "This is an attack on the education system to the certain extent—we're putting in jeopardy the results of a literacy test that is a requirement to graduate."

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The same kind of attack, although on a much larger scale, was recently used to temporarily take down internet infrastructure on the the Eastern seaboard, leaving many sites unreachable, though they've since come back online.

The EQAO has no leads on who might have perpetrated the attack against the grade 10 literacy test rehearsal, the organization stated in a press release, since the IP addresses linked to the infected computers came from all over the world. Despite their outsize impact, DDoS attacks can be easily perpetrated by almost anybody, including so-called script kiddies—basically, high schoolers with an internet connection and some free time.

According to Jones, the EQAO did undertake load testing in the run-up to the pilot test, but only accounted for 150,000 students and proctors accessing the system simultaneously, not a DDoS attack. But, he said, the organization is consulting experts to make sure that this kind of disruption doesn't happen again.

As more education services move online and the economic and technical barriers to perpetrating similar cyber attacks continue to be lowered, will this kind of thing will continue? "I think that's absolutely the case," said Jones.

At least, as long as there's teens with computers who really don't want to take a test.

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UPDATE 10/25: This article has been updated to include comment from Richard Jones, director of assessment for EQAO.