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Students’ confidential academic files were hacked and exposed at Los Angeles private school Harvard-Westlake. Archived SAT scores, GPAs, transcripts and college recommendation letters were downloaded, then sent to a group of parents and the school newspaper, as well as The Hollywood Reporter.
The materials encompass approximately 150 alumni who graduated over the past decade. They include the children of Oscar winners, media chieftains, household names, assorted billionaires and influential political donors of both major political parties.
THR’s inquiries to the sender, whose email address utilized the name of a high-level school employee, went unreturned.
Harvard-Westlake’s president, Rick Commons, informed the school’s parents and alumni via email on Sept. 3 that a data breach had occurred on the servers of Naviance, a third-party, cloud-based college-counseling platform the institution had used from 2012 through 2020. “The school is outraged by this violation of student privacy,” he wrote, adding that Harvard-Westlake had established an ad hoc committee to address the issue. He noted that its response had already included contacting the FBI and engaging with network security experts to both ensure its own systems hadn’t been compromised by the incident and to uncover the source of the attack.
Following questions from THR, Commons sent another email to the Harvard-Westlake community on Oct. 7, in which he explained that it’d been determined that an unknown entity had obtained the Naviance username and password of a senior school administrator — apparently the same one whose name was employed to later send the materials. “So far,” he wrote, “the investigation has not identified the perpetrator of this act or how they obtained the employee’s Naviance password.”
The FBI declined to comment.
The college recommendation letters, written by the school’s deans, offer mostly bolstering — although at times critical — assessments of students’ time during their years on campus as well as frank psychological portraits. Several of the letters received by THR on Sept. 2, seek to grapple with the differing levels of privilege within the student body. Some offer context for the early academic performance of certain scholarship students. Others, in highlighting soon-to-be graduates’ extreme material advantages, seek to make the case that they are free of entitlement.
Harvard-Westlake’s breach follows a similar attack against another prominent L.A. private school, the Center for Early Education in West Hollywood, earlier this year. In that case, staff payroll documentation was published in email blasts sent out to the school community.
While in recent years educational institutions across the country have faced a rising scourge of ransom-based hacks — in which money is demanded in exchange for stolen personal data — Harvard-Westlake believes it has ruled out such a motive. “This was not a ransomware attack,” says Ari Engelberg, the school’s head of communications and strategic initiatives.
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Taraji P. Henson