ERIE, P.A (WICU-WSEE/CW) – Cyber Security expert Afzal Upal has worked over 20 years in the field and says he's never seen anything like this before.

 A mass release of threatening emails, demanding ransom in exchange for disarming a bomb was sent to several locations in cities all across the United States and Canada.

 *The threats hit the Erie area too, as Millcreek students at Belle Valley and Grandview Elementary Schools, as well as J.S. Wilson and Westlake Middle Schools safely evacuated their buildings on Thursday afternoon.

Upal's daughter attends J.S Wilson. He, like several parents, received both an email and audio alert addressing the evacuations.

"I was worried, to be honest." Upal said

Uppal was on the job as a professor in the Cyber Security program at Mercyhurst University when he saw the alert. While it’s unclear if the threats were connected, Uppal says the threats were likely executed by a group, with the intent of causing widespread panic.

A task he says, is not as hard as it seems.

"You can put anything like your name, you can put anything as your phone number, you could be sitting anywhere in the world."  Upal said

He says the clock is ticking for investigators as they turn to a process called "digital forensics."  Think regular crime scene forensics, but on the internet.

"Just like criminals leave some traces behind, they also leave digital traces behind." said Uppal

Investigators can track everything from a person’s email or IP address to pinpoint where something was sent from. But Upal says the process is easier said than done, as it can be an arms race to track down the source. Often, a person will try to cover their tracks and confuse an investigator.

"You need to know exactly how these crimes happen." Uppal said

Which is why he and fellow professors continue to study and teach in the changing field to stop someone before they press send.

Even if you’re not entering the field, Upal believes everyone should have at least some understanding cyber security, especially when it comes recognizing threats or suspicious messages.

Mercyhurst University will soon offer a digital forensics class in the spring of 2019.

In the event you receive a threatening email, Upal says you should treat like any other threat and report it to your local law enforcement.

The investigation into the source or sources of Thursday’s threat is still ongoing.


*In the piece, the alert sent to parents referenced only two schools evacuated. We later learned of the other two.