The ATI Systems, which use sirens to notify the general public in the case of an emergency, are vulnerable to exploitation by unauthorized parties. These kinds of warning systems are in use at locations such as One World Trade Center in New York City and the Indian Point Energy Center nuclear power stations, which are located north of Manhattan.
Discovered by Bastille Network's security researcher Balint Seeber, the attack can happen because encryption is not used in the ATI Systems control protocol. If a bad actor can find the operating frequency of the sirens and craft a malformed packet to act as an activation message, the game is over and the sirens blare.
Bastille first encountered the problem during a security audit of San Francisco's alert system in 2016. However, the company and its researchers did not notify ATI or the city of the potential problem at that time.
However, the company did inform ATI and San Francisco of the vulnerability three months ago, in order to give officials time to put a patch in place. As of this writing that has not happened. That may be due to the difficulty of adapting one patch to the very specific installations that characterize alert systems.
In any case, the patch should be available soon.
In its report, Bastille notes that it is now disclosing the flaw publicly to allow ATI Systems users to determine if their system has the same vulnerability. Researchers are also hoping that other siren vendors will investigate their own systems to patch and fix this type of problem.
In its defense, ATI notes it took Bastille many months of investigation in order to figure out how to do this sort of attack and that it was not a simple matter.
Further, ATI points to the fact that the San Francisco installation is 14 years old and uses a control protocol that is not present in its current products. Even so, a secured system may be too expensive for municipal use.
The use of radio technology in overall alert systems is an interesting corner. But considering that Bastille could have informed San Francisco two years ago about this vulnerability must raise eyebrows about its motivation.
If at the time Bastille believed that this presented a clear danger to the public, its lack of communication was irresponsible. Even if the company's researchers were waiting for confirmation -- like the sirens going off in Dallas a year ago -- they could have spoken out sooner.
Because of this, as well as Bastille giving the exploit an snappy name --SirenJack -- and a dedicated website, one must ask whether or not this is a way for Bastille to try and gain some publicity by cynically piggybacking onto public fears and anxiety.
Also, by announcing the attack before a patch is available, the company is breaking the principles of responsible disclosure. Such a course of action throws Bastille's motivations into question as well.
Yes, ATI and government officials should patch their older systems, but Bastille is no knight in shining armor in this situation.
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— Larry Loeb has written for many of the last century's major "dead tree" computer magazines, having been, among other things, a consulting editor for BYTE magazine and senior editor for the launch of WebWeek.