Over the past few years we’ve seen some prominent occurrences of hackers gaining access to public safety systems where they make changes which, while a bit humorous at first blush, are serious examples of the vulnerability of our systems.
This article describes a vulnerability in variable message signs (VMS), which can be programmed remotely to notify drivers of hazards or give other pertinent information. In another occurrence, in February of 2013, hackers gained access to the Emergency Alert System, broadcasting messages about a zombie attack.
The favor these pranks do for us is to identify vulnerabilities in our systems. Both articles mention that some vulnerabilities were exploited simply because the default passwords on these systems were never changed. Agencies that maintain any kind of public messaging system (and yes, this should also include websites and social media accounts), should adhere to the guidance we all normally hear about passwords – create strong passwords including combinations of numbers, letters, and symbols (when possible), avoid patterns or predictable passwords, and change passwords regularly. As a matter of information security, these passwords should only be known by a select few.
Why are these occurrences serious? Obviously (to most of us) they are taken in jest, but these are public safety systems which should only be accessed by public safety professionals. The information and instructions provided over these systems need to come from reliable sources to ensure that the public takes the messages seriously and follows the instructions given. We should be thankful these instances were pranks, as someone with malicious intent could have provided information which could have endangered the public.
All levels of government and any other organizations which maintain public alerting systems, including colleges and universities and even highway construction firms need to make a thorough examination of their systems, identify potential vulnerabilities, and take steps to ensure they are protected.
What other systems offer vulnerabilities to hacking?
© 2014 Timothy Riecker