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L.A. students breach school iPads' security

As students at Roosevelt High and other schools hack L.A. Unified-issued iPads for non-schoolwork, the district ponders solutions.

September 24, 2013|By Howard Blume

It took exactly one week for nearly 300 students at Roosevelt High School to hack through security so they could surf the Web on their new school-issued iPads, raising new concerns about a plan to distribute the devices to all students in the district.

Similar problems emerged at two other high schools as well, although the hacking was not as widespread.

Officials at the Los Angeles Unified School District have immediately halted home use of the Apple tablets until further notice.

The incident, which came to light Tuesday, prompted questions about overall preparations for the $1-billion tablet initiative.

The roll-out is scheduled to put an iPad in the hands of every student in the nation's second-largest school system within a year. Roosevelt was among the first to distribute them, starting a week ago.

Tablets were still being handed out Friday when administrators discovered the hacking already in progress, allowing students to reach such restricted sites as YouTube and Facebook, among others.

"Outside of the district's network ... a user is free to download content and applications and browse the Internet without restriction," two senior administrators said in a memo to the board of education and L.A. schools Supt. John Deasy. "As student safety is of paramount concern, breach of the … system must not occur."

Other schools reporting the problem were Westchester High and the Valley Academy of Arts and Sciences in Granada Hills.

Students began to tinker with the security lock on the tablets because "they took them home and they can't do anything with them," said Roosevelt senior Alfredo Garcia.

Roosevelt students matter-of-factly explained their ingenuity Tuesday outside school. The trick, they said, was to delete their personal profile information. With the profile deleted, a student was free to surf.

Soon they were sending tweets, socializing on Facebook and streaming music through Pandora, they said.

L.A. Unified School District Police Chief Steven Zipperman suggested, in a confidential memo to senior staff obtained by The Times, that the district might want to delay distribution of the devices.

"I'm guessing this is just a sample of what will likely occur on other campuses once this hits Twitter, YouTube or other social media sites explaining to our students how to breach or compromise the security of these devices," Zipperman wrote. "I want to prevent a 'runaway train' scenario when we may have the ability to put a hold on the roll-out."

By Tuesday afternoon, L.A. Unified officials were weighing potential solutions. One would limit the tablets, when taken home, to curricular materials from the Pearson corporation, which are already installed. All other applications and Internet access would be turned off, according to a district "action plan."

A second approach would be to buy and install a new security application.

Apple's just-released new operating system might help, but not the current iteration, according to the district. A fix from Apple is not likely to be available before late December.

The devices should work normally at school, although even that has been problematic. Teacher Robert Penuela said his use of the tablets has been limited because he can't get them to work for all students at once.

Roosevelt freshman Alan Munoz said that, so far, he was using his iPad only during free time.

The excitement of receiving the device quickly wore off for senior Kimberly Ramirez when she realized it was for schoolwork only.

"You can't do nothing with them," she said. "You just carry them around."

howard.blume@latimes.com

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