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Library cyber attack impacts

Sam Coe listens to his granddaughter Simone read at the library. Photo by Caroline Walker Evans for Cascade PBS

How SPL cyberattack is impacting students, patrons

Still unknown when library computers will be back online

During the school year, Ayehu Endile’s children usually spend three afternoons a week at the Lake City Library in North Seattle.

Homework Help tutors have helped the fourth and fifth graders with math, reading and other subjects for several years, but not lately. The recent ransomware attack against Seattle’s library system has taken many services away, including the online homework help program.

Endile said her children have been very disappointed and angry over the ransomware attack since they were unable to do their end-of-the-school-year homework, which was available only online.

Services down

Over Memorial Day weekend, the Seattle Public Library system went offline due to a cybersecurity attack. Virtually all services – including checking in and out physical books and movies, access to library accounts and e-books, use of the library computers and wi-fi – were unavailable.

The cyberattack prevented some older students from completing year-end projects and assignments, but more than students were affected. Job seekers could not search for or apply for jobs. The people who check out books each day had to put their reading on hold. And people without a computer at home couldn’t research options for a new appliance or learn more about birds, or history, or anything really.

Seattle Public Library was ranked the eighth busiest library for digital checkouts in 2023 in the world – King County Library is ranked third.
The Seattle Public Library logged more than 13 million checkouts in 2023, including 6 million physical material checkouts of books and DVDs and 7.4 million digital checkouts, 5.5 of which were e-books and e-audiobooks.

They also offered 340,000 public computer sessions at the 27 locations throughout the city in 2023, and 1.7 million pages were printed from their public printers.
Weeks later, the library is still working to recover from what was later identified as a ransomware attack, and is working to bring all its services back, with no clear idea of when the library system will be back to normal, according to its blog.

Endile, who in our interview spoke Amharic with a librarian translating, said she had to buy a new iPad for her children to access their homework, since they used library laptops offered by the library, which were unavailable after the ransomware attack.

Library cyber attack impacts on students and visitors

The library is asking patrons to hold onto their physical books, CDs and DVDs until the system is running again. Photo by Caroline Walker Evans for Cascade PBS

Some services restored

Virtual tutoring was restored right before the school year ended for the summer, but without library wi-fi, the kids had to use their mother’s phone hotspot for internet access for their last few tutor sessions.

Ransomware attackers now engage in a “double threat” against victims, according to Jessica Beyer, a University of Washington assistant teaching professor who focuses on cybersecurity at the Jackson School of International Relations.

The first threat is withholding data until ransom is paid. If the ransom is unpaid, the second threat is releasing information from the system by selling it on the dark web, including personal information like credit card numbers, addresses, usernames and passwords.

In addition to her children losing access to tutoring and the lack of internet access at the library, Endile said she was concerned about her personal information being released as part of the attack on the Seattle Public Library.

Rise in attacks

Beyer said there has been a rise in ransomware attacks against public institutions like libraries, K-12 public schools, hospitals and other organizations with limited resources and weaker cybersecurity.

The Toronto Public Library was targeted by a ransomware cyberattack in October 2023, and it took them more than four months to recover their computer systems.
Since the library computer system constitutes a big public resource used by thousands of people each day, cybersecurity is very complicated. Beyer said almost everyone is vulnerable to cybersecurity breaches, and the only way to combat them is to prepare in advance through training and “good cyber-hygiene.”

People would need to be taught not to click on links in texts and emails from senders. They need to be careful about using a variety of usernames and passwords for their accounts and not entering them into suspicious websites. And of course they need to learn what a “suspicious website” looks like and how to use dual-factor authentication as an extra security step.
Beyer said these practices can make a difference in combatting inevitable cyberattacks.

Library cyber attack impacts empty chairs at computer terminals

Computers at the Seattle Public Library sit vacant after the recent ransomware attack. Photo by Caroline Walker Evans for Cascade PBS

Community impact

Some who depend on the library for internet access were able to use hotspots from their phones for service. Libraries have one hotspot at each location, though it’s intended only for staff use. Those who needed to use computers were referred to King County Library System locations.

Some services have been restored, including digital books, checkouts for books and other physical materials and some research database access. People who checked out books prior to the ransomware attack need to hold onto them. Since the attack, librarians have been able to manually check out some materials, but they won’t be able to manually check them back in.

One unexpected silver lining: People are coming back into library buildings instead of just accessing information and reserving materials online. Librarians are seeing this as “rediscovering browsing.”

Amy Easton came into the Lake City branch with a backpack stuffed with books that needed to be checked in, but was told to hold onto them due to the ransomware attack. She has used the audiobook and digital book app from the library, Libby, for years. She listens to books while doing chores, gardening and other activities.

She was unable to return an audiobook she listened to on the app when she discovered the ransomware attack. E-book and e-audiobook access were restored on June 13, and Easton was surprised by how quickly the library is putting things back together after the attack.

Easton isn’t as concerned about the data breach, saying “It’s something that we kind of have to live with in this day and age.”

She and her partner come into the library once a week to read magazines and see what’s new. They were very disheartened by the attack.

A hit to third spaces

“Third spaces are few and far between, and the library is one of the last civic institutions that we have, that really bind us all together,” Easton said. “I want my tax dollars going here, I want the library to be strong and vital because it’s important for all of us.”

Eighty-year-old Joan Abrevaya has used library services since arriving in Seattle from Los Angeles in 1984.

She is the longest-tenured volunteer for Friends of the Library at the Central Library, which she calls her favorite building in the city. Abrevaya said she regularly checks out books, and has more than 30 library books piled up near her bedside since the ransomware attack occurred.

“It’s hard for me to imagine attacking the library. First of all, they don’t have the money, and it is such an essential part of so many of our lives,” Abrevaya said. “For me, libraries have always been a central part of my life … fortunately, the library is still open and functioning, but for people who depend on the computers, it’s a life-changer in a very negative way.”

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About the Author

Jadenne Radoc Cabahug / Cascade PBS