Zombie Alert Hoax: Emergency Broadcast System Hacked

Bodies of the dead are rising from their graves, warns CBS affiliate. News at 10.

Mathew J. Schwartz, Contributor

February 12, 2013

3 Min Read

Who Is Hacking U.S. Banks? 8 Facts

Who Is Hacking U.S. Banks? 8 Facts

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Emergency alert: zombies are rising up in Montana.

"Civil authorities in your area have reported that the bodies of the dead are rising from their graves and attacking the living. Follow the messages onscreen that will be updated as information become available. Do not attempt to approach or apprehend these bodies as they are considered extremely dangerous."

That Emergency Alert System (EAS) voiceover warning, preceded by the standard, staccato EAS attention signal, ran Monday afternoon on CBS affiliate television station KRTV in Great Falls, Mont. The EAS warning interrupted a broadcast of "The Steve Wilkos Show" devoted to teen cheaters.

Signs of an apparent zombie apocalypse to the contrary, KRTV later that day released a statement confirming that a bogus message had been transmitted via its EAS equipment. "Someone apparently hacked into the Emergency Alert System and announced on KRTV and the CW that there was an emergency in several Montana counties," according to the statement. "This message did not originate from KRTV, and there is no emergency. Our engineers are investigating to determine what happened and if it affected other media outlets."

Local police likewise said there was no emergency. "We can report in the city, there have been no sightings of dead bodies rising from the ground," Lt. Shane Sorensen of the Great Falls Police Department told the Great Falls Tribune -- admittedly, with a laugh.

[ Do zombies know how to use computers? Read Uncertain State Of Cyber War. ]

"We had four calls checking to see if it was true. And then I thought, Wait. What if?" Sorenson said. But he noted that KRTV hadn't contacted the police department to report the incident or request an investigation, and said it's unclear what penalties someone might face for hacking a television station's EAS.

The zombie story was spotted by journalism watcher Jim Romenesko, and no doubt zombies rank high in the cultural zeitgeist, as the Emmy Award winning The Walking Dead mid-season premiere Sunday night set a series and basic cable record by drawing 12.3 million viewers.

Accordingly, might the prank may have been a promo for either The Walking Dead, or horror-romcom Warm Bodies? That was the suggestion made by The Register, which noted that the EAS hack clearly tops the 2012 hack of highway signs in Portland, Maine, to read: "Warning Zombies Ahead!"

At the time, a Portland city spokeswoman told Portland Press Herald that whoever broadcast the zombie warning could face misdemeanor charges of "tampering with a safety device," which includes penalties of up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine.

But tampering with signs to display zombie warnings was already a meme. Indeed, the first zombie-related highway sign tampering incident appears to have been in Austin, Texas, in 2009, reported Portland Press Herald. Similar warnings later appeared on highway signs in Washington, Illinois and New York.

About the Author(s)

Mathew J. Schwartz


Mathew Schwartz served as the InformationWeek information security reporter from 2010 until mid-2014.

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