Devices used by many radio and TV stations to broadcast emergency messages as part of the U.S. Emergency Alert System (EAS) contain critical vulnerabilities that expose them to remote hacker attacks, according to researchers from security consultancy firm IOActive.
The EAS is a national public warning system that can be used by the president or local and state authorities to deliver emergency information to the general public. This information is transmitted by broadcasters, cable television systems, wireless cable systems, satellite digital audio radio service (SDARS) providers, and direct broadcast satellite (DBS) providers.
EAS participants are required to install and maintain special decoding and encoding devices on their infrastructure that allow the transmission and relay of EAS messages.
IOActive Labs researcher Mike Davis found several critical vulnerabilities in EAS devices that are widely used by radio and TV stations nationwide, said Cesar Cerrudo, chief technology officer of IOActive, Wednesday via email.
The vulnerabilities allow attackers to remotely compromise the devices and broadcast fake EAS messages, he said. "We contacted CERT [U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness Team] almost a month ago and CERT is coordinating with the vendor to get the issues fixed."
At least two products from one of the main vendors of EAS devices are affected, so many radio and TV stations could be vulnerable, he said.
Cerrudo declined to name the vulnerable products or the affected vendor before the vulnerabilities get fixed. He hopes that this will happen soon so that IOActive researchers can discuss their findings at the RSA 2013 security conference in San Francisco later this month.
"We found some devices directly connected to the Internet and we think that it's possible that hackers are currently exploiting some of these vulnerabilities or some other flaws," Cerrudo said.
On Monday, hackers compromised the EAS equipment of several local TV stations in Michigan and Montana. The attackers interrupted regular programming to broadcast an audio message alerting viewers that "the bodies of the dead are rising from their graves and are attacking the living."
The affected stations included ABC 10, CW 5 and Northern Michigan University's WNMU-TV 13 in Marquette, Michigan, and CBS affiliate KRTV in Great Falls, Montana.
"The hacker responsible for creating and airing a bogus Emergency Alert System message on the air at ABC 10 -- CW 5 Monday evening and at least three other TV stations, including WNMU-TV 13 at Northern Michigan University, has been found," ABC 10 station manager Cynthia Thompson said Tuesday in a blog post. "It has been determined that a 'back door' attack allowed the hacker to access the security of the EAS equipment."
"Providing Emergency Alert information is a vital duty of a broadcaster," Thompson said. "The nature of the message Monday night was not necessarily dangerous, but the fact that the system was vulnerable to outside intrusion is a danger."
Cerrudo agreed. These issues are critical because next time hackers might use these systems to generate real panic instead of making zombie apocalypse jokes, he said.
For example, they could send an emergency message claiming there's an ongoing terrorist attack using anthrax that has already made victims, he said. "This would really scare the population and depending how the attack is performed it could have drastic consequences."