Engineer's Corner
8:50 am
Tue February 12, 2013

TheEC: Zombies and EAS

“This is not a test, the dead are rising from the grave.”

Not quite what was spoken, nor quite a real alert, this weekend nonetheless saw KRTV-TV in Great Falls issue a LAE (Local Area Emergency) alert for several counties in Montana, and spread as far as WLW in Chicago.   The LAE was, yes, a zombie alert, with an audio component that said: “the bodies of the dead are rising from their graves and attacking the living. Do not attempt to apprehend or approach these bodies as they are considered extremely dangerous.”

Needless to say, this was not a real alert.  I mean, c’mon.  The ground’s frozen in Montana this time of year – the zombies wouldn’t be able to dig out!

More serious is that some enterprising hacker figured out how to hack a major station’s EAS box and issue a fake alert like this.   Thank goodness he or she issued such an obviously fake alert instead of something more realistic and potentially more panic-inducing, such as an alert about a potential nuclear missile attack – a very real concern to residents of Great Falls given that Malmstrom Air Force Base, with several Minuteman III nuclear missile silos (and thus a definite target for attack), is located there.

I’ll give you a minute to let the phrase “nuclear missile” sink in.   Granted, it’s not the same as a hacker managing to launch a nuke…that’s much, much harder to hack.   But I think the idea of panic in the streets of a town right next to a lot of nuclear missiles is enough to give anyone a sober pause.

Several parties are still investigating, so details are slim, but it appears the EAS box was hacked by means of its required internet connection.   The FCC mandated that all EAS encoder/decoder devices have internet capability to receive, and pass on, Alerts in the internet-based Common Access Protocol (CAP) from IPAWS, the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System.  The hacker, in theory, could be next door or across the country.  At this point no one knows.

But certainly this is a screaming example of how the internet can be a fantastically useful tool, but it’s also rife with potential for mischief, and security is no laughing matter.