Signal-Hacking Incident: No Zombies, But a Real Emergency

This week, an unusual incident—warning viewers and listeners of a zombie apocalypse—caught attention online. But according to a number of regional broadcast associations affected by the Emergency Alert System hijack, it's no laughing matter.

This story’s hook involves zombies, but don’t laugh.

In recent days, a number of local TV and radio stations, including some in Montana and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, have had their signals hijacked by outside intruders. A sample of what happened, from Great Falls, Montana-based station KRTV:

“This message did not originate from KRTV, and there is no emergency,” the station later wrote.

Similar messages have also shown up on television and radio stations in California and New Mexico. WNMU, a Northern Michigan television station affected by the incident, found its broadcast of Barney & Friends interrupted by a claim that zombies were rising from the ground.

(On a related note, the Canadian parliament recently held a debate on zombie uprisings. Really.)

Emergency Feeds to Blame

The problem is rooted in the widely used Emergency Alert System, which was launched in the 1950s and ’60s. Originally intended for use during national emergencies, it is now more commonly used to issue weather alerts, and more recently, Amber Alerts.

Suddenly you create a panic and people are fleeing somewhere and you end up with traffic jams and accidents and who knows what.

As a result of the incident, associations are working with the Federal Communications Commission to ensure that equipment is checked and protected at a reasonable standard. They warn that the incident is more than just a joke.

“This looks like somebody being a prankster, but maybe it’s somebody testing just to see if they could do this, to do some real damage,” according to Greg MacDonald of the Montana Broadcasters Association. “Suddenly you create a panic and people are fleeing somewhere and you end up with traffic jams and accidents and who knows what.”

Karole White, the president of the Michigan Association of Broadcasters, suggested to the Associated Press that the problem may be the result of stations not changing the default passwords on emergency broadcast equipment.

“It isn’t what they said. It is the fact that they got into the system. They could have caused some real damage,” she told Reuters.

Security experts note that the devices are susceptible to such incidents, and one equipment manufacturer, New York-based Monroe Electronics, tells the wire service that these devices should be placed behind firewalls to prevent such incidents.

The associations, which notified authorities when the incidents took place, are working with member stations to prevent such incidents from happening in the future.


Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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