Zombie EAS Hack Attack Hits TV Stations
At least four TV stations across the country Monday were the victims of a hoax after a hacker broke into their Emergency Alert Systems.
KRTV Great Falls, Mon., initially made headlines Tuesday after a video of the alert, claiming “dead bodies were rising from their graves,” went viral on the Web. But the CBS affiliate wasn’t alone. WBKP and WNMU Marquette, Mich., also had the same alert played on their airwaves.
The hack likely happened because station operators didn’t change the default password on their Common Alert Protocol Emergency Alert System, says Ed Czarnecki, senior director of strategy and regulatory affairs for Monroe Electronics, the main manufacturer of EAS systems across the country.
“Quite simply, someone made an unauthorized access to the stations’ firewall and somebody logged into the system using a default username and password,” says Czarnecki. “This is a simple matter of operational security best practices. You have to change your default password on any new device.”
Now local and state authorities and the FCC are investigating to determine how that unauthorized access was granted. Calls into the Michigan State Police and FCC weren’t immediately returned, although the FCC Tuesday evening ordered stations to take immediate action to secure their EAS systems.
A spokesperson for the Federal Emergency Management Agency acknowledged that there may have been "a breach of security" of the product used by some broadcasers.
However, he added, "FEMA's integrated public alert and warning system was not breached or compromised and this had no impact on FEMA’s ability to activate the Emergency Alert System to notify the American public.FEMA will continue to support the FCC and other federal agencies looking into the matter."
After reviewing his station’s EAS security log Monday night, Kenn Baynard, WBKP operations manager in Marquette, said it was clear that someone made multiple attempts to break into the system. “They went in from the back door of this system and tried numerous passwords and have been doing so for days leading up to the hack,” Baynard says.
Before any real alert goes out, such as one from the National Weather Service, station executives are notified via email about it. That didn’t happen at the ABC affiliate on Monday afternoon, Baynard says. “It just went out by itself. There was no log about it, nothing. It just went out.”
Baynard is now blaming Monroe Electronics, claiming the software has a security flaw. “I spoke with an engineer in Montana using the same system, and it was hit the same exact way.”
Czarnecki stands by his argument, saying the company clearly states in its manual to change all default passwords, including the administrator password. He’s now telling all station operators to double-check their passwords and even choose a new password to avoid anything similar from happening.
“We’re not treating this lightly,” he says, adding the company is examining multiple options to fix any possible security flaws.
Ernest Sanchez, counsel for KENW Portales, N.M., said, in general, any business that has a responsibility to take reasonable action to protect against any kind of foreseeable cyber attack. “This should be a wakeup call to stations around the country to be very conscious about their EAS security,” he says.
As for who did the hacking is still being investigated.
Eric Smith, WNMU general manager, said Northern Michigan University’s forensics information technology staff traced the hack to an overseas IP address Tuesday morning.
“We have a good forensics IT staff that are very good at tracking where problems develop,” says Smith. “As protocol, we’ve turned the investigation over to the university’s public safety and police department.”
Karole White, president-CEO of the Michigan Broadcaster’s Association, said the group has been contacting other Michigan stations to ensure a similar attach has happened. She says this is the first time she’s ever heard of experienced this type of attack.
“Before a year or two ago, the EAS systems were hooked up through phone lines, now they’re hooked up to the Internet,” she says. “On the bright side, this minor attack, while it may have confused or frightened people, uncovered some weaknesses that we can look at, fix and adjust to, to ensure this doesn’t happen again.”