The UK Government is investigating reports that state-issued school laptops came with malware pre-installed.
The laptops were found to contain the Gamarue.I malware, a self-propgating network worm, which is capable of remotely downloading files onto a device. When activated, the malware linked to Russian servers.
With the malware running, the laptops could be used to send spam emails and to download and install additional malware on the devices, effectively adding them to a larger botnet.
Staff at a school in Bradford discovered the issue and raised concerns on an IT forum. The Department of Education (DfE) has contacted those who reported the issue as part of the investigation.
According to the post made by the staff, the school had received their final assignment of Geo Geobooks 1E running Windows sent by the DfE.
“Upon unboxing and preparing them it was discovered that a number of the laptops are infected with a self-propagating network worm (Gamarue.I),” the post stated.
“The DfE help desk has been notified and a screenshot of infected files has been provided to them. This shows the infected file was last modified on 7/12/2019 shortly after the laptop was manufactured. The DfE have confirmed that a few schools have reported this.”
The laptops have been connected to government-approved IT reseller XMA.
The investigation will ascertain how many devices had the malware installed on them, where they were sourced from and if they had been allocated to any children.
Fewer than 10 schools have reported the problem, according to a spokesperson from the DfE. They noted that pre-installed anti-virus software on all the laptops had neutralised the virus during set-up.
“We have been investigating an issue with malware that was found on a small number of the laptops provided to schools as part of our Get Help With Technology programme,” the spokesperson said.
“In all known cases, the malware was detected and removed at the point schools first turned the devices on.
“We take online safety and security extremely seriously and we will continue to monitor for any further reports of malware. Any schools that may have concerns should contact the Department for Education.”
However, a source quoted by the Daily Telegraph claims that around 10% of the devices were compromised.
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The school laptops were issued as part of a programme to support vulnerable children during lockdown.
The UK Government has pledged to provide 1.3 million devices to school children in England. However, there have been complaints about delays in distributing the devices, with around 800,000 currently distributed.
With the discovery of the malware, additional delays are likely as laptops will now need to be checked and to ensure they are safe before sending them to students.
The coronavirus pandemic has resulted in a massive shift to remote and digital learning. However, there are concerns that a lack of digital access could widen the digital divide, as poorer children, or those without access to the internet, are left behind.