Lake Washington schools are dealing with a nasty computer virus that’s affecting student laptops. Photo courtesy of Flickr user IntelFreePress.

The laptops issued to students in the Lake Washington School District were supposed to accelerate learning, but now a nasty computer virus spreading everywhere is disrupting class and costing the district money.

The district has spent more than one month fighting off something called the Goblin virus. It comes from downloaded malware via the internet and spreads easily from computer to computer.

The virus is affecting not only high school and middle school students who received a laptop for the first time this year, but also devices at the district office and elementary schools.

That’s 50 schools and more than 25,000 computers. And here’s the ironic thing about it: The Lake Washington School District comprises the cities of Kirkland and Redmond, the latter, of course, being the hometown of Microsoft. Those laptops are all running on PCs with Windows 7.

“We know we were in for a long haul when one of our parents who works at Microsoft told us that the virus was ‘an extremely sophisticated one,’ when he heard the name of the virus,” said district spokeswoman Kathryn Reith.

The problem with the virus is that it’s much more damaging than clicking on a bad link; the Goblin works through executable files and networks. Once in the system, it’s difficult to get it out.

The district had to hire five temporary IT staff members to suppress the virus (Couldn’t some of the kids just call on their Microsoft parents to help out?). Reith said that they still do not know where the virus came from and are waiting for a root-cause analysis from their antivirus software provider.

Students and teachers are doing their best to make do without the laptops.

“As far as learning time, we aren’t losing any,” Reith said. “We still have about 90 percent of our equipment up and running. Teachers are being flexible with what tools they use and how they approach a particular lesson.”

It’s nice that students can be more engaged with education on electronic devices, but instances like this reinforce the importance of online and offline security. The district has done basic internet safety instruction and gave out laptop handbooks to students and parents. They also had enterprise antivirus software from Sophos set up before the outbreak and used web filters and firewalls.

But after the Goblin, they’re now instituting mandatory scans of all computers at high traffic times. The district is also now upgrading its network firewall and putting in more reports and alerts.

And for those wondering, the district went with PCs over Macs for several reasons: the proximity of Microsoft HQ, the company’s involvement in supporting local and national education and last but not least — especially for a school district — cost.

Editor’s note: This story was updated at 12:05 p.m. with information from the district.

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Comments

  • atifsh

    is everyone of them stupid?
    ever heard of system restores, or incase they didn’t come with any backup from oem, onecan easily format and reinstall.

    • Guest

      … and get reinfected because they’re not doing it all at once.

    • http://spookscentral.com/ Kurt Barlow

      Its 2012. Is re installing windoze still your best answer? lmao. Some day people might realize Microsoft is not the answer at all here. Not even close.

  • Anonymous Parent

    Sadly, the IT staff of LWSD, and probably every school district in the country, is inadequate to handle even minor issues, much less a large problem like this. They can’t hire decent people because they can’t pay enough (the same problem applies to hiring teachers, but that’s a topic for TeachWire, not GeekWire).

    The incompetence of the district and the IT staff is particularly bad here. Behind the scenes on this problem is the whole “netbook” program that was originally conceived to eventually give every high school an middle school student in the district as a way to share lessons and eliminate books. In actuality, they gave students big, heavy, obsolete Windows laptops, with no plan in place for maintenance, updates, upgrades, or repairs (save trying to coerce parents to shell out for money for “insurance”), and which replaced zero books, as far as I can tell. Students now have all their heavy books plus a six-pound laptop. And the program cost more money than it would have cost to buy iPads or Surfaces for everybody. They’re in Microsoft’s backyard. Amazon, Nintendo, a large Google facility, and many other technical companies are all nearby — couldn’t they have found some expert parents to help them?

    And now this. When the district first sent out mail to parents telling them about the virus, they assured us that the virus outbreak, while deemed important enough to notify every single parent, was not an issue for the student laptops and would not become one. Every parent in the know laughed. Sure enough, a follow-up mail took that back. I wouldn’t be surprised if the district never recovers from this virus outbreak.

    • danux

      I’ll switch them all over to Linux – for free! Problem solved if they really want.

  • SilverSee

    ‘Anonymous Parent’ wrote:

    “When the district first sent out mail to parents telling them about the virus, they assured us that the virus outbreak, while deemed important enough to notify every single parent, was not an issue for the student laptops and would not become one.”

    This implies that the virus infected the LWSD internal network *first* and later spread to the student laptops. However, your reporting suggests that the virus infected the school district *because* the students are using Windows laptops (as opposed to laptops having some other OS). I think it would help to clarify whether the facts actually support this slant.

    BTW, it’s “make do”, not “make due” (sorry to be a stickler for proper English).

    • Taylor Soper

      Hello again SilverSee,

      Good question on where the virus started. As stated above, the district told me that they still have not been able to determine exactly what was infected first. They are hoping the root-cause analysis will help answer that.

      Also, you’re right with the grammar error. I fixed it in the article.

      Thanks for reading.

      • http://www.christopherbudd.com Christopher Budd

        The causes of outbreaks like this are really hard to pin down (nearly impossible really) when talking about environments with lots of mobile users.

        Odds are most likely that an infected laptop connected to the network, the virus spread from that to other systems. This particular type of virus spreads through open file shares (http://www.sophos.com/en-us/threat-center/threat-analyses/viruses-and-spyware/Mal~Xpaj-B/detailed-analysis.aspx) which is a particularly pernicious method because you can have infected files still sitting on systems that cause reinfection.

        I suspect they thought they had it under control and then had a wave of reinfections.

        Not sure why Sophos didn’t help here, though most likely it’s a new variant (and so the signatures didn’t catch it) or the signatures are out of date. Also, Windows 7, for all it’s security protections, doesn’t have default AV capabilities. So the odds are also good that you had some unprotected systems connecting to the network (and, again, likely the cause of the outbreak).

        I read in another story that Premier Support is involved and Microsoft provides excellent support in cleaning up environments like that. So I expect they’ll get back on their feet, but it will take a while.

        • johnitguru

          LOL! Microsoft has ZERO support. They simply do not care.

          • http://www.christopherbudd.com Christopher Budd

            Actually, no they provide no charge support for virus issues. They’ve provided that since around 2003.

      • http://www.facebook.com/lenaheiner Lena Heiner

        When my daughter came home and told us about the virus she said the students had been told it was because of something a teacher or support person downloaded. And, these netbooks are old and unwieldy. Definitely not worth the trouble or what it would cost as a parent to have to (heaven forbid) replace one.

        • http://spookscentral.com/ Kurt Barlow

          Good Lord. I wish people would understand that Microsoft is just a platform (a bad one). Your computer is still worth money. Just because Bill Gates loaded his crap system on there is meaningless. Google Linux Mint, have a 12 year old in your neighborhood install it, and all the ridiculous windoze problems go away instantly.

          • http://www.facebook.com/lenaheiner Lena Heiner

            Thanks for your input. But, these are school owned netbooks and we aren’t allowed to do anything to them.

          • http://spookscentral.com/ Kurt Barlow

            you can run linux live without installing it off a disk or usb drive. But yes, Microsoft has their monopoly, and does not want solutions.

  • Allen

    “they still do not know where the virus came from and are waiting for a root-cause analysis from their antivirus software provider.”
    Why call out Microsoft, but not name the district’s antivirus vendor, which clearly seems to sold a product that is not doing its job?

    • Taylor Soper

      Hi Allen,

      I added in the specific antivirus vendor. It’s an enterprise antivirus software from Sophos.

      Thanks for reading.

  • Yancy Burns

    Do they have to run Windows on the laptops? Just install (or boot from cd/usb!) with Ubuntu, Mint, etc, and be done with it.

    • Chris Craig

      Exactly – if cost was a factor, nothing beats nothing!

    • http://spookscentral.com/ Kurt Barlow

      People are brainwashed. They think Microsoft is the only way to use a computer. Google Linux Mint and have a kid in the neighborhood install it on your laptop. Instant solution.

  • Bink Binkerson

    Last line of article …cost, because having people chasing around after viruses (in a 17-year-old product!) and having the machines being unusable… is free. Wake up already, that product is NOT merchandisable. It’s infected compost.

  • http://twitter.com/sundarnut Sundar Krishnamurthy

    When I checked my son’s preschool classroom PC last year, I recollect finding a Sophos icon on it. Hope they secure their laptops too!

  • Limecat

    The premise– that Macs somehow are immune to viruses– is utterly ridiculous. Was geekwire sleeping when each of the last several years’ Pwn2Owns resulted in OSX falling first (I think that this year they did better)? Taylor Soper, were you sleeping when Flashback hit and everyone was astonished that OSX has bugs just like every other computer program on the planet?

    Also, you could have been a bit more subtle in your blatant plug for Macs.

  • AG

    Oh nice…this hack bit of poor journalism is now on slashdot where the M$ people will have fun with it. I guess that gets you the views that GeekWire but next time do a better job or get the views doing something more deserving.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jerry.bauer Jerry Bauer

    Farconic’s Deep Freeze can be used. Every reboot wipes out all changes made during the previous session. Many school districts use it.

  • http://spookscentral.com/ Kurt Barlow

    Windows itself is the virus. Get rid of garbage proprietary over priced crapware, and install Linux Mint. Instant solution to a failing company, Microsoft.

  • kozmcrae

    Microsoft’s security is primarily reactive. It comes in to play *after* the fact. It doesn’t have a signature until *after* a virus is out in the wild doing damage. It will always be challenged by new malware and variants of old ones.

    Microsoft’s Windows security is layered on, not built in. It will never be ready before the malware hits. This is a hold over from its early days as a single user, single tasking, network dumb OS. Yes, that crusty old code is still in there.

  • vulture4

    I also recommend Linux Mint. However a modern android system would be OK too. With Linux you don’t have incessant copy protection issues; if worse comes to worst you can teach the kids to wipe their disk and reinstall the system. OLPC uses linux and hasn’t had this problem. Unfortunately OS decisions are usually made by management, not technoids.

  • http://twitter.com/RobertJFClarke Robert Clarke

    As someone who is dealing with issue first hand (high school student at Redmond High School), I can atest, this is very very bad, especially at how they’re handling it.

  • James

    “And for those wondering, the district went with PCs over Macs for several reasons: the proximity of Microsoft HQ, the company’s involvement in supporting local and national education and last but not least — especially for a school district — cost.” …

    I guess they should go back and reassess their decision to standardize on a platform that requires more support over time than the initial costs of their purchase – Doh!

    Sent from my iPad…

  • Confused parent

    Has anyone called Microsoft and asked for help with this issue? They are supposedly large supporters of education. Are they supporting these 25,000 users? It seems as this would be great publicity for them if they lent 10-15 of their experts to assist. Seems to me they have more to lose if they do nothing, not to mention a rather large client.

    • Chris Craig

      Microsoft supports education because they understand brand recognition and imprinting – it doesn’t really have any altruistic motives.

  • Josh

    Less than 1% of all virus can effect linux. Linux is more stable. That’s why its on 85% of supercomputers and Microsoft Windoze is on only 1% of supercomputers out there. Linux distros are FREE, unlike Windoze. Most smart tech people run some distro of linux on their Server/Desktop/Laptop/Mobile Device. And yet everyone is still brainwashed into thinking only M$ windoze or Apple sh!t.

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