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TV’s Emergency Alert System hacked

Fake messages in Montana and Upper Peninsula warned of zombie attack

February 12, 2013
By RENEE PRUSI - Journal Staff Writer , The Mining Journal

MARQUETTE - The message about dead rising from their graves has created a great deal of buzz on social networking sites and many zombie jokes.

While authorities believe the perpetrator in this incident has been found, the hacking of two local television stations' Emergency Alert System Monday could have chilling implications.

Eric Smith, general manager WNMU-TV 13, one of the hacked stations, said at 10 this morning the hacker had been found.

"We have located the source of the hacking overseas and we have closed the hole in the system," Smith said. "We are confident that it will not happen again. We are turning the info to the (Northern Michigan University) Public Safety department, which is in charge of the investigation."

WNMU-TV13 and WBUP ABC 10 were the victims of hacking incidents Monday in which audio messages and a crawl strip were put through by someone using the system designed to inform the public of real emergencies. The messages were similar, warning people to not approach those rising from their graves and "attacking the living."

"It happened shortly before 4 p.m., just before we went into local news," said Eric Smith, WNMU's general manager. "We were very surprised. It's a huge concern. The integrity of the Emergency Alert System is something we take seriously."

For ABC 10, the interruption came during the airing of "The Bachelor," at about 8:36 p.m. Monday.

"The Emergency Alert System is an important external messaging system broadcasters are required to have," said Cynthia Thompson, ABC 10's news director and station manager.

The system allows agencies like the Michigan State Police, governor's office and the National Weather Service to get out important information to the public.

"The system apparently has some way a person with computer knowledge was able to get in. It's nothing to do with a lack of security at our station. It was an outside system that was attacked," Thompson said.

Smith said he immediately contacted the Michigan Association of Broadcasters.

"Their engineering department manages the system," Smith said.

Karole L. White, president and CEO of the MAB, said investigation includes "lots of people with authority on the local, state and national level."

"Right now, there are meetings going on between (WNMU's) IT people, the equipment manufacturer and our head of the Emergency Alert System," White said. "This is the first time since the Emergency Alert System was put together in the 1940s that something like this has happened. It has been about one year since we went online with an Internet system."

Previously, the alert system had been a telephone-based system. Now, the EAS has equipment that allows an "autopilot" system to go into use when station personnel are not physically present.

"In the meantime, we are asking all TV stations at this time to preview all messages in advance (of airing them) and to contact the Michigan State Police should there be any questions."

Smith said the Michigan State Police and Marquette Police Department are part of the investigation locally. Thompson said the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Federal Communication Commission are also joining in the probe.

"We filed a report with the Michigan State Police Negaunee post's cyber security unit," she said. "We want to know why this happened and how to keep this from happening again."

White is confident the hacker will be found.

"We are pretty certain we can find the individual," she said. "This has brought out a vulnerability in the system that can be sought out, can be redone and the hole can be plugged."

Thompson said the most frightening part of the situation is that the message could have been something other than a zombie spoof.

"What if it had said something really serious, like another terrorist attack was under way," she said. "It's scary."

Smith said this situation is being taken very seriously by WNMU-TV13.

"This is top priority for us," he said. "We are fortunate the message was of the nature it was. The implications are huge ... We will get to the bottom of this."

Thompson said ABC 10 ran a crawl until midnight to apologize for any unease created by the phony message.

"We appreciate everyone's patience and understanding with all of this," she said.

The hacker attack didn't just happen in the Upper Peninsula.

The Associated Press is reporting a Montana television station's regular programming also was interrupted by news of a zombie apocalypse.

The Montana Television Network says hackers broke into the Emergency Alert System of Great Falls affiliate KRTV and its CW station Monday.

KRTV said on its website the hackers broadcast that "dead bodies are rising from their graves" in several Montana counties, just as the messages on the U.P. stations did.

The network says there is no emergency and its engineers are investigating.

A call to KRTV was referred to a Montana Television Network executive in Bozeman. Jon Saunders didn't immediately return a call for comment.

The Great Falls Tribune reports the hoax alert generated at least four calls to police to see if it was true.

Renee Prusi can be contacted at 906-228-2500, ext. 253. Her email address is rprusi@miningjournal.net.

 
 

 

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