Hacked sirens should serve as warning that better infrastructure security is needed

Dallas breach shows that government and city systems nationwide must be more closely monitored against emerging threats

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It’s tempt­ing to ignore the warn­ing sirens that blared Dal­las out of bed last Sat­ur­day night, the work of a hack­er. But that would be a very seri­ous mistake.

Bob Sul­li­van, jour­nal­ist and one of the found­ing mem­bers of msnbc.com

We hear so much about the impor­tance of secur­ing America’s crit­i­cal infra­struc­ture sys­tems. Then you find out that the com­pa­ny respon­si­ble for main­tain­ing the Dal­las out­door warn­ing siren net­work also is an office fur­ni­ture mov­ing company.

Relat­ed video: Start-up helps lock down indus­tri­al con­trols, secure crit­i­cal infrastructure

In case you missed it, out­door sirens in Dal­las screeched con­tin­u­ous­ly the night of April 4, harass­ing many of the city res­i­dents with the ulti­mate false alarm. Ini­tial­ly believed to be a mal­func­tion, city offi­cials con­ced­ed it was a hack by Sunday.

The sirens are sup­posed to warn res­i­dents about imme­di­ate dan­ger, like tor­na­does. They did their job. Amer­i­ca just received per­haps the clear­est warn­ing ever that our essen­tial ser­vices are com­i­cal­ly easy to attack, putting our cit­i­zens in seri­ous per­il. Will we lis­ten, or just go back to sleep?

Big prob­lem no mat­ter the source

No one died Sun­day morn­ing. There was no blood, so there weren’t any dra­mat­ic pic­tures. But there will be. It doesn’t take much imag­i­na­tion to see how eas­i­ly this hack­er prank (or, was it a test?) could have gone very wrong. For starters, it served as a denial of ser­vice attack on the city’s 911 sys­tem, which was over­whelmed with calls.

More than 4,400 911 calls were received from 11:30 p.m. to 3 a.m., the city said. About 800 came right after mid­night, caus­ing wait times of six min­utes. As far as we know, no one died because of this. But that could have happened.

But that’s only the tip of the ice­berg. Secu­ri­ty experts I’ve chat­ted with have warned for years of a hybrid attack that could eas­i­ly cause pan­ic in a big city. Imag­ine if this hack had been com­bined with a cou­ple of con­vinc­ing fake news sto­ries sug­gest­ing there was an ongo­ing chem­i­cal attack on Dallas.

With­out fir­ing a shot, you could eas­i­ly see real cat­a­stro­phes. Take it a step fur­ther, and com­bine it with some kind of phys­i­cal attack, and you have a seri­ous, long-last­ing inci­dent on your hands. Death, fol­lowed by mas­sive con­fu­sion, then pan­ic, then a bunch of sit­ting ducks stuck in traffic.

Play­ing the “what if” game some­times leads to exag­ger­a­tion. But it is called for when some­one is about to ignore a warn­ing sign. So I asked secu­ri­ty con­sul­tant Jeff Bardin of Tread­stone 71 to tell me why the Dal­las inci­dent should be tak­en seriously.

Poten­tial catastrophe

For one, it could have been a diver­sion­ary tactic.

Test­ing the emer­gency sys­tems, get­ting to a ‘cry wolf’ state of affairs, get­ting author­i­ties into a full state of chaos and con­fu­sion while hack­ing and pen­e­trat­ing some­thing else. Kansas City shuf­fle,” he said. “This looks to me to be a test of the sys­tems. It could also be more than a test, mean­ing what was hacked dur­ing this fake emergency?”

Dal­las has been hit by “prank” hacks before. Last year, traf­fic signs were hijacked to dis­play fun­ny mes­sages like “Work is Can­celed — Go Back Home.” Very fun­ny. But this means we know the city’s sys­tems are being active­ly probed. Any intel­li­gent per­son has to con­sid­er what oth­er sys­tems this per­son or gang has toyed with. And, more impor­tant, what oth­er cities have they toyed with.

If I, as a hack­er, can con­trol the emer­gency sys­tems, alarms, build­ing secu­ri­ty, HVAC, traf­fic lights, first respon­der sys­tem, med­ical facil­i­ty inter­faces, law enforce­ment, etc., all the nor­mal phys­i­cal sys­tems that now have inter­net inter­faces, I can con­trol the whole of the city,” Bardin said. “What else was pen­e­trat­ed dur­ing this ‘test?’ How many oth­er major cities in the U.S. oper­ate the same way? What was inject­ed into these sys­tems dur­ing the test for lat­er access?”

Hope­ful­ly, the Dal­las siren hack­er is a kid who found flaws in a very old, inse­cure sys­tem and had some fun for a night, Bardin said. Per­haps it was some­one try­ing to “prove a point,” though in a care­less, dan­ger­ous way that did put lives in danger.

Back to busi­ness as usual?

Point not made. Life is full of dis­as­ters avert­ed, then ignored. The planes that almost col­lid­ed. The car acci­dent nar­row­ly avert­ed. The key that was lost but is found.

It’s 48 hours after a major U.S. city had its sirens blar­ing all night long. Are you hear­ing about fed­er­al inves­ti­ga­tions? Are you hear­ing about exec­u­tive orders around crit­i­cal infra­struc­ture? (You did. But then, you didn’t.)

As for the fur­ni­ture-mov­ing com­pa­ny behind the sirens, it’s prob­a­bly unfair to blame them. The Dal­las Morn­ing News report­ed that Michi­gan-based West Shore Ser­vices was in charge of main­tain­ing the system.

But the biggest ques­tion of all: Will any­one hear this warn­ing siren? Or will we all go back to sleep, like Dal­las did?

Dal­las May­or Mike Rawl­ings seemed to get it, and called for seri­ous invest­ment in the wake of the attack.

This is yet anoth­er seri­ous exam­ple of the need for us to upgrade and bet­ter safe­guard our city’s tech­nol­o­gy infra­struc­ture,” he wrote on his Face­book page. “It’s a cost­ly propo­si­tion, which is why every dol­lar of tax­pay­er mon­ey must be spent with crit­i­cal needs such as this in mind. Mak­ing the nec­es­sary improve­ments is imper­a­tive for the safe­ty of our citizens.”

Let’s hope some­one lis­tens, and those sirens are heard far out­side Texas.

More sto­ries relat­ed to wide­spread hacking:
Threat of cyber attack on crit­i­cal infra­struc­ture is real, present danger
Recent net­work out­ages point to crit­i­cal tech­ni­cal vulnerabilities
Pop­u­lar web­sites knocked down by IoT-enabled DDoS attack

Posted in Cybersecurity, Featured Story