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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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