There Are at Least Three Easy Ways to Hack the Emergency Alert System

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The small-scale hacking of the Emergency Alert System in Montana to broadcast a supposed zombie apocalypse earlier this year, revealed the possible safety hazards of a vulnerable alert system, making this new report on various ways to hack the system all the more alarming. According to an IOActive Security Advisory published, two of the systems responsible for delivering the messages, can be easily hacked. "An attacker who gains control of one or more DASDEC systems can disrupt these stations' ability to transmit and could disseminate false emergency information over a large geographic area," explains the report. DASDEC I and DADSEC II are both, apparently, at risk. But it doesn't just stop there: In addition, the report also links to another notice about further vulnerabilities in the system known as R189 One-Net/R189SE One-NetSE bringing the hole count up to three, which is disconcerting. 

Technically, compromising the DASDEC systems doesn't sound too difficult. "These DASDEC application servers are currently shipped with their root-privileged SSH key as part of the firmware update package," Mike Davis, the principal research scientist who discovered the holes, told Wired's Kim Zetter. "This key allows an attacker to remotely log on in over the Internet and can manipulate any system function." In other words: If you have the secret password sent out with the firmware you can hack it— basically. 

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The other vulnerability mentioned in the second report makes it even easier to hack than the DASDEC ones. The main problem with that system was that it includes a default administrative password that people often forgot to change. Indeed, that's how the zombie apocalypse pranksters got access: They just entered a password. (Let this be another one of the many lessons in passwords best practices to you all.) A silly fake attack of the living dead is the most benign outcome of these hacks, of course. Sure, not everyone gets their intel from screechy banner messages during Maury, but imagine the panic if some sort of faux terror alert went out across the country. 

It's not all terrible news, though. The news of weaknesses went out in tandem with a series of fixes for the systems. "A spokesman for IOActive said that his group released the announcement today only after working with CERT to notify the vendors first and give them time to notify customers and work on fixes," notes Zetter. Some fixes had already been made; others, however, are still in progress. So, think twice if you see any alien invasions over the Emergency Alert System in the near future. 

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.