Dallas, Texas – On Apr 8 2017, around 11:42 PM for no apparent reason, 156 tornado sirens went off (all together) and woke up what can be best described as – scared and baffled residents. When the sirens repeated in 90-second cycles, the locals thought they were being (or about to be) bombed.
Dallas Mayor – Mike Rawlings posted an update for citizens on his Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/MayorMikeRawlings/posts/1030736253694199) where he described the incident as the hack i.e. an attack on emergency notification system. He also wrote, “This is yet another serious example of the need for us to upgrade and better safeguard our city’s technology infrastructure.”
The news was posted on many major news channels and websites – including CNN http://edition.cnn.com/2017/04/08/us/dallas-alarm-hack/
The most comprehensive coverage is fro Washingtonpost.com https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-intersect/wp/2017/04/09/someone-hacked-every-tornado-siren-in-dallas-it-was-loud/?utm_term=.0b1ec2649790
Now, while news channels/websites and reporters talk about the situation and have provided updates on how the issue was handled and finally resolved – lets consider some facts and try to derive some inference from the incident from cyber security perspective.
First – it is more than assured that this was an intentional hack and not a ‘mistake’ by someone in the emergency service grid. Hence, this infers that; the security controls deployed were either not enough or not tested properly during the planning and deployment cycles. At first there were speculations of the system not being controlled at all by a back-end software however, that was ruled out and this proves the point enough – integrating security (controls) in every system (offline or online) from planning, deployment and testing point of view should be an absolute zero tolerance exercise.
Second, the hacker(s) were motivated and determined to make it happen – at the most awkward hour. This hacker or hacking group made it look easy enough without leaving much of an evidence that the trail could be picked up and the perpetrator of the cyber crime is apprehended.
Third, connected systems expose the attack surface – and yes while this is a known fact, who would imagine that an emergency system grid could be hacked? That too – whole of it!! It is supposed to be a closed and monitored system – isn’t it? This brings us to the discussion where we can either discuss about standards not being in place from IoT / grid computing security point of view or we can simply say – it is about time someone did something about cyber security pertinent to public and government deployment. While this was clearly an issue with implementation of security for the sensors; this could go well beyond just the alarms as more often than not, one emergency system is connected to another e.g. 911 has taps into fire, police etc.
Last but nevertheless most importantly – while security analysts analyze and wonder how this could have been pulled off, for the people who experienced this ‘it was very real and scary’. This serves well to remind us all that how helpless we feel when technology is abused.
Note: The intent of this article was not to give the information that is widely available in terms of this incident however, to further deep dive and see the causalities of ill-fated security systems/controls. And, to extrapolate the kind of damage that can be done at large – anywhere in the world by that someone nasty – who knows how to get pass the security (if at all there was some).