JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – Gov. Mike Parson held a press conference on Thursday to notify the public that an individual gained illegal access to multiple teachers’ private information using the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE)’s website.
The “hacker”, a reporter with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, reportedly searched for the teachers’ public information on DESE’s website, and then proceeded to decipher the website’s source code to uncover the teachers’ social security numbers.
“Through a multi-step process, an individual took the records of at least three educators, decoded the HTML source code, and viewed the social security numbers of those specific educators,” Parson said.
After finding out about the issue, DESE immediately contacted the Missouri Office of Administration, which maintains operations of the website, and had the search portal temporarily removed while the code was safely updated.
Parson noted that the records were only available on an individual basis and that there was no option to search, view or retrieve the personal information of multiple educators at one time.
The state is utilizing “all legal methods available” to find out the intent behind the reporter hacking into DESE’s system, including an investigation by Missouri State Highway Patrol’s digital forensics unit.
However, Parson believes the hack to be a politically motivated effort by the reporter and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch to “embarrass” the state as the outlet is a known critic of the governor.
“[The reporter] was acting against a state agency to compromise teachers’ personal information in an attempt to embarrass the state and sell headlines for their news outlet,” Parson said. “We will not let this crime against Missouri teachers go unpunished and we refuse to let them be a pawn in the news outlet’s political vendetta.”
Parson’s administration has also notified the Cole County prosecutor of the incident to potentially pursue legal action against the perpetrator once the investigation concludes.
Under Missouri law, a person commits the offense of tampering with computer data if he or she knowingly and without authorization, accesses, takes and examines personal information without permission.
“A hacker is someone who gains unauthorized access to information or content,” Parson said. “This individual did not have permission to do what they did. They had no authorization to convert or decode, so this was clearly a hack.”
Missouri law also allows for additional civil lawsuits to be filed against the hacker to assess damages against the educators who had their personal information stolen.
The governor noted that the individual’s intrusion could cost Missouri taxpayers up to $50 million and cause resources and workers to be diverted from their normal operations.
Parson said the state is taking responsibility for its part in not preventing the hack and said his administration is committed to bolstering its security and finding out who all were involved in order to prosecute them.
“The state does not take this matter lightly,” Parson said. “We are working to strengthen our security to prevent this incident from happening again. The state is owning its part and we are addressing areas in which we need to do better than we have done before. We will not rest until we clearly understand the intentions of this individual and why they were targeting Missouri teachers. What they did is beyond unethical.”
“Not only are we going to hold this individual accountable, but we will also be upholding accountability of all of those who aided this individual, and the media corporation that employs them.”
Parson concluded the press conference by apologizing to the state’s teachers for having to deal with the repercussions of the reporter’s actions, and assured educators that he will hold those involved in the hack accountable.
“We apologize to the hardworking Missouri teachers who now have to wonder if their personal information was compromised for pathetic, political gain by what is supposed to be one of Missouri’s news outlets,” Parson said.
“We value our teachers and it is unfortunate that they have been put in the middle of this. But rest assured, we will not stop until we get them the assistance they need to ensure their information is secure and get justice by holding those responsible accountable.”