In the early morning hours approximately 156 outdoor weather/emergency sirens wailed horns across Dallas neighborhoods, thanks to a culprit who possibly gained physical access to a centralized broadcast system or, via remote access through phone lines sending signals to individual siren towers. Ordinarily used to alert residence to dangerous weather activity, the horn blasts cast concern upon citizens who reacted by overwhelming 911 emergency dispatch centers. Ultimately, the problem was resolved by crews physically deactivating each system at individual sites.

In what is referred to as a “close access hack”, this event spotlights a need for much more up-to-date emergency alert systems. While this hack is reminiscent of “phone phreaking” that took place in the early 70s and early 80s, it could still have major implications to other antiquated systems should the culprits find they could move laterally within the network. Many cities and municipalities across the country aren’t aware that these potential issues exist because concern about security compromises and hacks haven’t been reality.

Recommended Response

It is important that decisionmakers factor in the new era of those with technical acumen using their skills for crime, “hacktivism” or outright mischievous activity. Systems should be built with multiple safeguards in place to restrict both physical and remote access to management controls. However, this technology is expensive and requires commitment from a financial and human capital perspective to ensure the right systems is procured and talent is in place for its management.

In addition to limited funding for the recruitment of talent for required upgrades to emergency management and other critical infrastructure, there are currently no standards or guidelines on the safe, secure way to implement and manage public safety systems. Without a baseline of regulations to follow, cyber security is often a guessing game for many organizations. The lack of consistency among municipalities creates evermore concerns if an emergency county and state lines.

The Ultimate Goal

One might ask, what was the goal of this system compromise in Dallas? There doesn’t seem to be an immediate ROI or payout.  The concern is that this could lead to ransomware scenarios where a city could be frozen out of its critical systems unless extortion is paid.

With ransomware attacks and payout amounts on the rise, this could indeed be the case unless states receive more funding and education to assist cities and municipalities to conduct penetration testing on their systems for weaknesses and vulnerabilities. Quiltwork legacy systems present a major problem that could potentially result in massive amounts of time, manpower and money to correct if an intruder gains access and takes control.

While only a nuisance Saturday morning, and no apparent harm was done, this type of attack has the potential to have a far more damaging potential if not managed properly.  As with a good majority of cyber security issues, private and public sectors need to come together to address what is broken and establish national standards and guidelines to dictate public safety and other critical infrastructure systems should be designed going forward.