12:42 PM

Zombie Hackers Exploited Emergency Alert System Security Flaws

FCC has known about security gaps in networked alert systems equipment for more than 10 years. What if next hoax is serious?

"It's been known for a while that the Emergency Broadcasting System was set up without security," digital forensics consultant Jonathan Grier said via email. "The threat the U.S. had in mind was WWIII, not stateside hackers."

According to Venable's Barnett, the emergency alert devices "were developed over the last few decades, and while they're part of a network, it was before packet-switched and Internet concepts were even prevalent in our society, so some of the connections to other networks are now, you could say, bolted on."

Security researchers first discovered vulnerabilities in the EAS in 2002. In 2004, meanwhile, the FCC confirmed that "security and encryption were not the primary design criteria when EAS was developed and initially implemented," The Register reported.

"Now, however, emergency managers are becoming more aware of potential vulnerabilities within the system," said the FCC in 2004. "For example, the complete EAS protocol is a matter of public record and potentially subject to malicious activations or interference."

Given that 10 years have elapsed without a proper fix, arguably the FCC doesn't see EAS insecurities as representing a grave threat. "The response from the government was they didn't view this as a major concern: people instinctively cross-validate shocking news, so if one TV station reports, for example, a need for an emergency evacuation, it's unlikely to cause a panic -- people will cross-validate this before taking action," Grier said. "But it does make you think of Orson Welles."

Now, however, a stronger government response will be likely. "You can watch the Federal Communications Commission and FEMA to see what comes out," Barnett said. "I'm willing to bet that they'll have an investigation and report into this." He also recommended that the alerting industry rethink its approach to security. "They need to look at coming together and codifying some best practices to make sure that these types of things don't happen," he said.

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User Rank: Apprentice
2/19/2013 | 9:34:29 PM
re: Zombie Hackers Exploited Emergency Alert System Security Flaws
Thank goodness they were good hearted, albeit bored hooligans that meant no real harm. Imagine the panic if they had presented a more credible story to be transmitted? Or instead of the SuperBowl, the next power outage may be caused by a hack (or fully functioning "smart" control software) shutting down the circuit of the grid controlling Wall Street or the Chicago Merc ?
User Rank: Strategist
2/15/2013 | 9:33:33 PM
re: Zombie Hackers Exploited Emergency Alert System Security Flaws
It sounds like the pranksters basically provided a handy proof-of-concept that could help pressure some security fixes for the technology. All I could think of when I first heard this story was Orson Welles and the confusion over his "War of the Worlds" reading on the radio.

Kelly Jackson Higgins, Senior Editor, Dark Reading
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