The Public Emergency Response System, also commonly referred to as the Emergency Alert System or EAS for short, is a national warning system that was first put into place in 1997 after an initial approval by the FCC in 1994. It replaced two similar solutions: the Emergency Broadcast System (or EBS), which itself replaced the CONELRAD system that was established by Harry Truman in 1951. The Public Emergency Response System, like its predecessors before it, were designed in part to give the President of the United States a fast and reliable way to communicate with the public in times of crisis.
But going beyond that, the system is also designed to quickly alert the public to other types of emergencies like sudden tornadoes, flash floods, severe thunderstorms and more. Sadly, as is true with most types of technology, it is far from a perfect solution. In fact, there are a number of significant breaches that occurred during the system’s history that are certainly worth exploring in the digital era that we’re now living in.
When the System Breaks Down: Public Emergency Response System Breaches
Perhaps the most famous breach that occurred to the Public Emergency Response System is also the most recent. In January of 2018, the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency suddenly issued an alert warning of a ballistic missile that was headed for the region. It also specified that this was absolutely not a drill. The problem, however, was that it was a false alarm — something that was only revealed almost 40 minutes later.
Officials said that this was a mistake that was made during a “standard procedure at the changeover of a shift,” but it underlined just how fragile these emergency communications systems are. In fact, one recent study revealed that it would take as few as 6,000 smartphones armed with the right kind of malware to launch a DDoS attack powerful enough to almost immediately shut down all 9-1-1 and emergency services within a single state.
Sadly, this is not the only time this has occurred. Some other similar incidents that have happened since 1997 include:
- An immediate evacuation order for all of Connecticut was mistakenly issued in 2005, said to be the result of an operator error during a statewide test.
- In 2016, the emergency response system alerted television viewers that the entirety of Suffolk County, New York should be evacuated. This was supposed to be a smaller message, targeted only to those affected by Tropical Storm Hermine.
- In 2013, a group of hackers broke into the Public Emergency Response System networks in Montana and Michigan to broadcast an emergency alert that zombies had begun to rise from their graves and consume human flesh. This was, of course, not true.
User error is one thing, but actual hacking attempts are something else entirety. In that last example, it was revealed that a number of affiliate stations had installed emergency response system equipment without appropriate firewall or security protection. Those who did didn’t change the default factory logins or passwords — both of which left the doors wide open for hackers to take control of the entire system.
As a leading technology provider not only to cities but also to important entities like healthcare organizations, schools and more, it’s easy to see why we at PS LIGHTWAVE are so passionate about the security of something as critical as the Public Emergency Response System. It’s a solution that is, at the end of the day, designed to keep us all as safe and as secure as possible at all times. Hacking attempts, intrusions and false alarms run contrary to that goal — which is why this is a topic we all need to take very, very seriously.
PS LIGHTWAVE is the consultative data-connectivity provider for public and private entities in the Greater Houston area. Through our high-quality infrastructure, innovative technology and superior level of support, we deliver not only the best in connectivity and reliability but in scalability and redundancy. You’ll also appreciate that the PS in our name stands for “Pure Speed.” We fully understand that technology is a moving target, and we understand the people and infrastructure of the Greater Houston area. We are nimble, flexible and responsive, and we embrace leading-edge technologies that improve the customer experience. We invite you to learn more. Visit our website or contact us. Concerned about connectivity? Think PS LIGHTWAVE.