Hackers Set Off Dallas' 156 Warning Sirens Dozens Of Times

from the not-everything-should-be-connected-to-the-internet dept

So we've talked repeatedly how the shoddy security in most "internet of things" devices has resulted in increasingly-vulnerable home networks, as consumers rush to connect not-so-smart fridges, TVs and tea kettles to the home network. But this failure extends well beyond the home, since these devices have also resulted in historically-large DDoS attacks as this hardware is compromised and integrated into existing botnets (often in just a matter of minutes after being connected to the internet).

Whether it's the ease in which a decidedly-clumsy ransomware attacker was able to shut down San Francisco's mass transit system, or the fact that many city-connected devices like speed cameras often feature paper mache security, you can start to see why some security experts are worried that there's a dumpster fire brewing that will, sooner rather than later, result in core infrastructure being compromised and, potentially, mass fatalities. If you ask security experts like Bruce Schneier, this isn't a matter of if -- it's a matter of when.

In what should probably be seen as yet another warning shot across the bow: slightly before midnight in Dallas last Friday a hacker compromised the city's emergency warning systems and managed to set off the city's 156 warning sirens more than a dozen times. Needlessly to say, the scale of of the warning, and the number of sirens, led many people in Dallas to believe that the city had somehow been physically attacked in the middle of the night:

Dallas officials were forced to shut the system down around 1:20 am on Saturday, and despite informing the public to ignore the false alarms, a city that had already been having 911 issues the last few months found its 911 systems inundated with a massive influx of calls from concerned citizens:

"Even as the city asked residents not to dial 911 to ask about the sirens, more than 4,400 calls were received from 11:30 p.m. to 3 a.m. — twice the average number made between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m., Syed said. The largest surge came from midnight to 12:15 as about 800 incoming calls caused wait times to jump to six minutes, far above the city's goal to answer 90 percent of calls within 10 seconds.

The city is, frankly, fortunate that this didn't result in more problems than it did. City officials say they've identified how the attacker compromised the system, but won't be revealing technical details for obvious reasons (Update: it looks like the attacker used a radio signal attack on city gear to repeatedly set off the sirens). Over at his Facebook page, Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings was quick to highlight how the attack made it clear the city needs to spend significantly more money on its technology infrastructure:

"This is yet another serious example of the need for us to upgrade and better safeguard our city’s technology infrastructure. 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."

Of course while older, out-dated systems are certainly a problem, rushing to throw money at companies promising the "connected city of tomorrow in a box" isn't a panacea, either. While it likely had nothing to do with the recent hack, AT&T has been advertising Dallas as the centerpiece of its "IOT" ambitions for the last few years, just one of countless companies rushing into the space in pursuit of new revenue and quarterly growth. The problem, again, is that many of these smart city solutions are from many of the same vendors for which security and privacy were an afterthought in the residential market.

So yes, most cities are in desperate need of a technology and security upgrade, yet often lack the budgets to do so. You just hope that when these upgrades actually occur, they aren't sabotaged by the same superficial concern for privacy and security already plaguing the connected home market.


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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 10 Apr 2017 @ 1:57pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re:

    This is one situation where the same key can be used for all sirens, as the requirement is to (try) and ensure the messages come from a valid source.

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