NEWS BLOG (WSAU) It’s been a busy 72 hours for the FCC. The origin of this investigation seems funny, but it’s serious. Hundreds of radio and TV stations aired a false EAS test on Monday – warning of a zombie apocalypse. The emergency message that aired said “… the dead are rising from the graves and attacking the living.” Well, no, they aren’t. The emergency message is a hoax. The EAS system was hacked into.
How did this happen? A flaw in the technology, and, probably human carelessness.
Radio stations switched over to new EAS equipment a year ago. The goals behind the new technology was to make it easier for government emergency managers to access the system. (Yes, in a time of emergency, the government can take over radio and TV stations and broadcast messages directly to the audience.) The new system also is designed to accommodate the growing number of smaller stations that aren’t staffed 24/7. The system can relay emergency messages even when no one’s on-duty.
Some radio and TV stations are ‘originating stations’. That is, emergency messages go there first. Other stations listen for alert tones from those stations. The long beep that you hear automatically trips their EAS boxes, and that’s how the message spreads throughout the system… usually state-wide. In our area WIFC is an originating station, which is why our Midwest Communications studios in Wausau are staffed 24/7. Our EAS box was not hacked into, and we did not air the false zombie apocalypse message.
In the last year hundreds of new EAS boxes were installed at radio and TV stations around the country. They’re connected to the internet. They came with factory-installed passwords that were supposed to be changed. They’re also supposed to be installed behind a broadcaster’s firewall. All the hackers had to do was find an originating station that didn’t change its factory-password and didn’t have its equipment firewall-protected. If they could get one EAS box to activate, their hoax-message could be relayed to dozens of others. And that’s apparently what they did.
Yesterday the FCC sent out an urgent message to broadcasters around the country. The instructions: change your EAS password and make sure you’re firewall is working and up-to-date. Radio stations that couldn’t make those changes were told to disconnect their EAS equipment until they could.
The concern was that hackers could have sent an emergency message during President Obama’s state-of-the-union speech.
While the zombie warning sounds like a funny, harmless hoax – it isn’t. Rogues who have access to the emergency alert system could send out all kinds of false messages and set off mass panic.